“We must not fall in love with another Lover, we must not leave the Golden Palace, we must not get pregnant, we must not reveal any classified information we overhear in the politicians’ rooms.”
These are the rules that Iris, a Lover in the sinister reality series The President Show, has to obey or risk expulsion… and worse. In the show, young women compete for the attention of politicians. They’re conniving and sly – the flashes of companionship between them, any tentative relationships, are over-analysed and turned against them. Everything is filmed, everything is content. The only way out is to win.
Though author Costanza Casati sets the story in a dystopia, there are very few elements of Iris’s world that do not seem to have an equivalent in ours. People’s sexual relationships are played-out on screen for entertainment. Women portrayed as glamorous and powerful are systematically abused behind the scenes. Hysterical social media posts reported as gospel truth. There are too many enemies to count. There are the other contestants jostling for the top spot, the entitled politicians the Lovers are ordered to ‘entertain’, the bodily imperfections – the cellulite, the wrinkles, the extra few pounds – that are said to hold each contestant back. There’s a lot for Iris to think about.
But one enemy stands head-and-shoulders above the rest. Entertaining the President is seen as the ultimate honour. Casati depicts this president as a kind of amalgamation of Berlusconi/Trump/Weinstein. It would seem too much if we hadn’t just seen it all.
And this must be the challenge with writing dystopian fiction now. We’ve had the reality star presidents, the harems of women, the stories of systematic abuse. Now, we even have a global pandemic. In this new normal, it must be hard for fiction writers to shock. Present a reader with a crazy totalitarian regime, pantomime-evil characters, and improbable hairdos, and they’ll point to a spot on the world map, say ‘You set it there.’
But this, it seems, is the point of Casati’s novel. She’s not taking us to a faraway world, she’d showing us our own. On her bookstagram page, she’s hosted talks with other writers, discussing everything from the Epstein scandal to the influence of social media on body image. The President Show is deeply-rooted in the moment. Casati wrote with her eyes open and now she’s showing us what she’s seen.
Despite its heavy themes, the novel is fast-paced and energetic. Iris is a gutsy heroine – at no point are we left to wonder who we should side with. There are flashes of The Hunger Games, nods to The Handmaid’s Tale. In our interview with Casati earlier this month, she cited Margaret Atwood, Madeline Miller, Elena Ferrante and Sally Rooney as major influences. Certainly, the fraught female relationships of Ferrante, Sally Rooney’s staccato, slightly-detached observations, shimmer in Casati’s own writing.
There are moments when more would be good. We don’t see much outside the Golden Palace, and the precise structure of the show is slightly vague, but it’s possible Casati trusts we know enough about our own world to fill in the blanks. And we don’t see much beyond the Golden Palace because Iris is trapped there. If the atmosphere is stifling, it’s because Iris is stifled.
As you’d hope, over the course of the novel we see these rules – do not fall in love with another Lover, do not leave the Golden Palace, do not get pregnant, do not reveal any secrets – broken, smashed, blown to smithereens. This Chekhov’s gun has four barrels. In a world of pain, predators, and poisonous perfection, Casati comes out firing.
The President Show is now available to buy from Amazon and Waterstones. You can find out more about Costanza Casati and her writing on her website, or by following her on Twitter and Instagram. She also runs a successful bookstagram account, @youngpeopleread.
About the Reviewer
For ten years, Ellen Lavelle has interviewed authors for The Young Journalist Academy, Nothing in the Rulebook, Newark Book Festival, and her own blog. She’s written for several publications, including The Sunday Times Young Writer of the Year Award Blog. Now an editor at Nothing in the Rulebook, she writes fiction and non fiction, while working as a digital copywriter for an education company. You can follow her on Twitter @ellenrlavelle