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Scarlett Thomas specialises in quirky novels with slightly eccentric characters. They are usually long, and often the ideas are stronger than the plotting. 

 

Oligarchy is different, in that it is a short novel - but it still has quirky characters and fizzy ideas. Natasha is the daughter of a Russian oligarch who seems to have only recently faced up to his parental responsibilities. So he has arranged for Natasha to come to England to go to an all girls boarding school near Hitchin. It is not a major public school and most of the girls are from families that are rich enough to give them a sense of entitlement, but not rich enough to be independent. So Natasha, supported by her wealthy Aunt Sonja in London and a black Amex card, is popular despite her hefty thighs. 

 

Because hefty thighs are not what Oligarchy is about. It is essentially a satire of eating disorders - the lengths girls will go to in avoiding calories, the exploitation of young girls, and the bizarre steps taken by the school to get the girls to eat sensibly. Oh, and some of the girls disappear. And so do some of the teachers. It doesn't sound like it should be funny, but it is. Australian readers may spot some of the tropes from Chris Lilley's "Ja'mie Private Schoolgirl". 

 

The high points are the outrageous behaviour of the girls, showing off while trying to appear collegiate, manipulating teachers. The middle points are Natasha's relationship with Aunt Sonja - a bad and hedonistic aunt who seems to have no conscience about her wealth generated in various nefarious ways. The bits that interested me least were Natasha's relationships with a couple of likely lads - including the son of her father's lawyer - and the disappearances which seemed rather under-explored.  It was like a little strand of detective novel in something that really wasn't a detective novel. 

 

Oligarchy was a pleasantly quirky novel with moments of brilliance. I just wish a couple of the themes had been explored more - particularly the whole oligarchy thing - and maybe more compare and contrast to show what it was like for Natasha to be plucked from ordinary Russian society to her privileged lifestyle. Still a pretty good and quick read though - and definitely not a young adult novel despite the boarding school setting. 

 

****0

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I've had this on my wish list since seeing a pre-pubication piece on it. Sounds like it deserves its place.

 

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