Down to the bone

I needed something to read that didn’t feel like work. It wasn’t that I hadn’t enjoyed recent novels; but it had been a little while since I’d felt that irresistible pull of a great story that keeps you up far too late. I had the perfect thing to hand, a novel that came out last year by one of my favourite writers, so it was ridiculous to have left it this long. ‘Oligarchy’ by Scarlett Thomas (Canongate £14.99) did not disappoint.

It’s set in an elite boarding school and the protagonist, Tash, has suddenly gained access to fabulous wealth, having discovered that her father, previously unknown to her, is a Russian billionaire. It seems like a fairytale opening, but the story grows progressively darker. The school is a creaking, slapdash establishment, the teachers are dispirited, and Tash’s classmates fall prey, one after another, to a grim, competitive obsession with their appearance. The mood is less midnight feasts and hockey-sticks than sex, Pinterest and consumerism.

Tash has been supplied with a black credit card and promptly buys a sequinned miniskirt for £990: ‘She didn’t mean to order something so expensive: she didn’t understand the exchange rate.’ Not exactly helping her get her bearings in the world of the super-rich is racy Aunt Sonja, who works in tech and hands out advice like: ‘Don’t eat before lunchtime. Ever. Well, only fruit. Not bananas.’

The school has its own romantic legend, of a lovelorn princess who drowned herself in the lake, taking to its depths a fabled black diamond, the gift of a sultan. Princess Augusta’s fate might account for the air of doom that suffuses the place; or it might be the mostly depressive staff, presided over by Dr Noone, the headmaster, who seems as ineffectual as he is remote.

Tash’s friends are a motley bunch: fiercely committed anorexic Bianca; chic French girl Tiffanie; moustachioed Rachel, ‘huge and doughy’, but not for long; and a girl known always as ‘Becky with the bad hair’. Tash, unused to wealth, is the most level-headed of the lot; she’s our eyes and ears, an Alice in an Instagram Wonderland.

Life is a round of eccentric diets, bizarre lessons, and trips into Stevenage, the local town, for more exotic companionship than the village boys can muster. However, a dramatic development throws an odd light on the way the school is run. Tash and the others must try and solve a mystery, but it’s hard to keep a sharp focus when you’re down to less than 500 calories a day.

The reference to Muriel Spark on the back cover seems spot on; the prose is a kind of black diamond, coldly glittering, and the author has a pitiless eye for human foibles. The adults have mostly Botoxed their moral sense, leaving the girls adrift in a toxic online culture. Clear-eyed Tash, in but not of this world, wanders through relatively unharmed, but even in fairy-tales, survival usually comes at a price.

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