The brief description added on the Literary Review Calendar of ‘books to look forward to’ for November 2019 said:
‘Her first adult novel in four years: a tale of power and privilege set in a girls’ boarding school’.
I quite enjoyed this novel, despite it being removed on almost all levels from my own experience.
The central character of the book is Natasha – the daughter of a Russian oligarch who, despite them barely having any kind of relationship, has arranged for her to go to an English boarding school. The story is of her learning to understand and negotiate her privilege, her relationships to and with her peers (another form of oligarchy) and navigate the complex and dangerous territory of female body image. Alongside these elements the mystery of a death of a pupil – murder or suicide? – which the girls explore with somewhat ridiculous and excited energy entirely in keeping with the overblown drama peculiar to teenage girls. There was a further story sprinkled throughout, tied to the conclusion featuring a Princess, a death, a diamond and the school lake but I would need to read the final chapters again to work out what was going on here! This element felt like an ‘add on’ and unclear
There are many funny lines and crisp insights and the writing positively bounces along capturing the fickle attention span of teenagers perfectly. I didn’t get any real sense of cultural or character difference between the girls (I had no ideal what made Natasha Russian for example). Sexuality was also strangely missing – in a girls school with teens in the spotlight I might expect more focus than referring to slight crushes. I did not think the line between humour and cruelty was well drawn in relation to anorexia. Anorexia doesn’t lend itself to comedy and whilst the experience of anorexia/bulimia was well drawn (the carrier bags of sick found after a death, the jutting bones) the girls are not given any sympathy or much positive agency beyond the creation of ever more dangerous food restriction rules.
So, it was a bit of a mixed bag for me. There is a lot to commend in this book – it is fun, there are great lines, good dialogue and Aunt Sonja is a fabulous character who I would like to know more about but there is a level of bleak unkindness about anorexia, and the girls who experience it, that was prickly and pointed and a bit uncomfortable – possibly a writerly technique to reflect a disordered self-hating mind mind that becomes anorexic?