Disclosure: I received a copy of this book free of charge for review purposes only. Receipt of a book does not guarantee a review or endorsement. My reviews are my honest opinion and are not biased for the purpose of personal gain.

The daughter of a Russian oligarch, Natasha is sent to an English boarding school on the outskirts of Stevenage. All the girls there are rich, and thin. They swap their tips for getting thinner. They are left unchecked until one day tragedy strikes.

If you had to choose between being ugly and happy, or beautiful and miserable, which would you pick?

Oligarchy is an unflinching look at eating disorders with an edge of dark humour. Whilst it is set in a boarding school, the fact that it’s not marketed as young adult allows the characters to be uncompromising. They don’t set a good example, yet they do portray the warped thinking that goes hand in hand with eating disorders. The myriad of myths they absorb about food are both ridiculous and heart-breaking.

When one girl dies, an outbreak of anorexia is declared at the school. This doesn’t seem to deter many of the girls but through their frankly dreadful counsellors, the book can highlight some of the thinking patterns connected to eating disorders. The teachers don’t appear to be doing a very good job of handling things and as the situation escalates, you really start to doubt the motivations of the school. An outbreak of suspected norovirus among a group of unready malnutritioned teenagers is handled shockingly.

That her friends’ diets are so secret and weird that you could never, ever discuss them with an adult? Why is that? Because they are ridiculous. Because their diets, and everything they think, and everything they do, is ridiculous when compared to real life.

Tasha’s father might be an oligarch but she didn’t grow up in that world, and her mentality isn’t quite as bad as the other girls. This starts to show when she’s in group therapy and the worst she can think of was throwing away a box of chocolates. I loved Tiffanie and her dib-dob obsession. The girls, these “bad apples”, have their own private ways of speaking, and there is warmth between them that only makes you wish they would support each other in ways that wasn’t about their diets.

None of the girls are given anything to aim for in life, they are the daughters of the rich, expected to be pretty, but not to carve out a career or meaning. Left detached to life, they seek something to control, something that will make them better. That is their weight and the calories they consume. The internet has given new avenues to those seeking advice on extreme weight loss. And throwing these susceptible girls together at boarding school just intensifies the problem.

Every night after supper the girls – the bad ones, the rotting apples from the attic dorms – walk past the pictures of Princess Augusta in the lake and into the headmaster’s study where he reads to them from Great Expectations, a story of a boy called Pip who will do anything for a beautiful, thin, rich girl called Estella, who never eats and who lives in a house full of cobwebs.

This book isn’t going to be for everyone, if you have a difficult relationship with food or body image it might be hard to read. The girls think that being fat is about he worst thing you can be, and whilst that is part of their illness, it does mean they can come across as fat shaming.

Oligarchy is published by Canongate and is available now in hardback and ebook editions. Thanks go to the publisher for providing a copy for review.

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