What has always impressed me about Thomas’s work is its moral integrity. You do not get easy answers but you do get hard questions. Oligarchy is above all about power, and it is unflinching in finding out how it operates. It is a novel where one character “is trying to give [her] some moral instruction, some basic feminist grounding”, despite living in a “soulless rich person’s apartment” and being “clearly so very unhappy”. This is not a happy book, but it is a necessary one.
Thomas is a talented writer, but successfully playing body image issues for laughs requires well-rounded characters – see: Bridget Jones, Louise Rennison’s Georgia Nicolson – and I do wish she’d shown her girls some of the kindness that they refuse to show themselves. Oligarchy is billed as a book for adults but at times it reads more like young adult fiction (Thomas also writes children’s books). However, I wouldn’t want this getting into the hands of any young woman with eating problems, so crammed is it with references to weights, BMIs and dieting methods.
Thomas displays untrammelled delight in language, observing that in Natasha’s desire to police the boundaries of her own body by controlling what she drinks, if not eats, she ‘wants to be pure inside, like she used to be. Pure and slight like a backslash.’
This kind of jouissance can appear artless; but of course it can’t be, and there is an intrigue over the death of the girls’ classmate which provides a plot. There have been many other notable novels about schools, not least Kazuo Ishiguro’s haunting Never Let Me Go, but there has been none so entertaining since Muriel Spark’s The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie.