Asking For It by Louise O’Neill, published September 2015 by Quercus.
Read: September 2015
Genre: Young Adult/Contemporary/Feminism
Source: Book Swap
Get It Now: Wordery
Goodreads Synopsis: It’s the beginning of the summer in a small town in Ireland. Emma O’Donovan is 18 years old, beautiful, happy, confident. One night, there’s a party. Everyone is there. All eyes are on Emma. The next morning, she wakes on the front porch of her house. She can’t remember what happened, she doesn’t know how she got there. She doesn’t know why she’s in pain. But everyone else does. Photographs taken at the party show, in explicit detail, what happened to Emma that night. But sometimes people don’t want to believe what is right in front of them, especially when the truth concerns the town’s heroes…
*Trigger Warning* – Rape and Sexual Assault.
Originally, I had planned for this post to be two things – a book review, and a discussion inspired by the content of this book. After spending three days collecting my very scattered thoughts, I’ve decided to split the posts into a review and separate discussion. This topic warrants its own discussion post. Asking For It is so much more than a YA novel. It is a heart-breaking and cutting piece of social commentary, wrapped up as literature, and presented in an easy-to-read, but not-so-easy-to-digest book. It has been a long, long time since I’ve felt incensed by the content of a book, to the point where my stomach is in knots and my fingers are flying over the keyboard to put all of my thoughts into a post.
Asking For It is a complex book that touches on so many important and controversial issues, from rape and sexual assault, to mental health and family dynamics. O’Neill takes on taboo subjects, such as victim-blaming and consent, and handles them so well, delivering hard-hitting literary punches with ease, while engaging the reader right until the end of the story. The topics covered in this novel evoke so many varied opinions and stances in society, that the storyline could easily have ended up being confused and diluted by an author trying to cover all bases. O’Neill handles them expertly, and ensures that the reader is not left questioning her stance, or the focus of this book.
Asking For It is divided into two main sections, one pre-incident, and one post-incident, around one year after the event. Pre-incident, there is a Mean Girls vibe to the story, with our protagonist and her group of “friends” coming across as fairly unlike-able. I say “friends” because the friendships in this story are tenuous at best. Post-incident, the story becomes much darker as the reader is shown the long-term aftermath of sexual assault on the victim, her family, and the local town. The far-reaching impact of social media is a key focus of the story, which is particularly relevant today, as well as some of the hurdles and difficulties a victim faces when bringing a criminal case against alleged rapists, even when the evidence is overwhelming.
One question that hit me while reading – does this book accurately depict the thoughts and actions of teenagers today? I’m only 25, but already I feel a generation gap between myself and today’s teens. Not only have I forgotten just how insecure, selfish, and shallow teenagers can be, but recently I’ve witnessed the frankly scary lengths today’s young women will go to in order to fit in, be attractive, and gain the attention of the opposite sex, and the extreme opinions of today’s young men, who seem to think women and sex are simply there for the taking when they decide they would like them.
Unfortunately, I fear that our main character, Emma, is not hyperbolised in any way. As a character, she is the opposite of innocence, sweetness and light, which I think O’Neill has cleverly done to show that even if you wear revealing clothing, even if you are highly attractive, even if you have a sexual history, even if you use your looks (as society would encourage you to do!) to get ahead – that STILL does not mean that rape or sexual assault are somehow justified, or explained, because all of these things do NOT mean that you were “asking for it”!
If I am being brutally honest with myself, this book made me uncomfortable, and not just for the obvious reasons you may expect. It made me uncomfortable because the victim’s parents are less than useless at supporting their daughter, and at times their reactions made me feel physically sick. It also made me uncomfortable because even though I proclaim to be a feminist, and even though I know what my views are on rape, and consent, and victim-blaming, I could still hear my inner monologue saying things like, “she was being promiscuous”, “she was wearing very revealing clothes”, “she was drunk and on drugs”, “she should have known better than to put herself in that situation” – the very things I consistently argue (even with peers and family members!) are not by any means an excuse for sexual assault. Because these thoughts were creeping into my head, this book highlighted to me just how conditioned we are as a society to think this way, that women should be intrinsically taught how to prevent themselves from being raped, as opposed to men being taught (if they should even HAVE to be taught) that rape is wrong and never acceptable.
By the end of this book I was emotionally raw. I was drained. I was disappointed and heartbroken. I wanted to crawl into the book and DO something. I really wanted to scream at Emma’s parents. But I was also oddly hopeful. Hopeful that this book will be picked up and read by many, that others will share in my heartache and help prevent this kind of thing from happening, that this story will inspire us to change.
“They are all innocent until proven guilty. Not me, I am a liar until I am proven honest.”
“It happens to loads of people. It happens all the time. You wake up the next morning, and you regret it or you don’t remember what happened exactly, but it’s easier not to make a fuss – “
“No one forced the drink down her throat, or made her take shit. And what guy was going to say no if it was handed to him on a plate? She was fucking asking for it.”
“You know I’m on your side, right? I was just asking if it was, like, rape rape.”
“They’re good boys really. This all just got out of hand.”
This is the first book I’ve read by O’Neill, and it certainly won’t be the last – before I even finished it I was on-line ordering Only Ever Yours.
I know this is a lengthy review, and heavy topic, but please feel free to share your thoughts in the comments.