‘Asking For It’ by Louise O’Neil

★★★★★/5 stars

Published by Quercus!

‘Asking For It’ is set in a small Irish town and follows Emma O’Donovan, who’s in her final year of school and seemingly has it all. She’s beautiful, popular — to the point where everyone is a little bit obsessed with her — and does well in school without even having to try too hard. She’s also got her girls, Maggie, Jamie and Ali, and a whole trail of boys who can’t seem to keep their tongues in their mouths when Emma is around. Her life is pretty great until, well, it isn’t. The group of girls attend a party and nothing for Emma will ever be the same again. She wakes on the doorstep of her home the next morning with no recollection of the night before and only learns what happened to her when a string of explicit photos are shared on Facebook.

This book is so incredibly powerful and harrowing. I devoured it in less than two days and was completely and utterly consumed by this important and scarily realistic narrative that Louise O’Neil has cleverly woven together. She evokes real hot anger with her portrayal of rape and casts glaring flood lights on the problematic way in which society perceives and shuns women who are victims of assault. It calls into question Emmie’s state of mind on the night of her attack, questions the fact she was drinking, that she took MDMA. That she was, well, dressed like that, so surely it was what she wanted? Surely she was… asking for it?

But what I found maddening still (although I completely, completely commend O’Neil, because she knew what she was doing and oh boy was it clever) was her characterisation of Emma O’Donovan from the offset. She didn’t make her particularly relatable in the sense that we couldn’t, and didn’t necessarily want to, empathise with her. We didn’t feel like she was just like us. She was doing well for herself. To be honest, she didn’t have that usual likability. She’s lucky, because she’s good looking; she’s the girl that always gets what she wants. She’s also cruel to her friends — the instance in which she makes Ali squirm just because it makes her feel powerful made me dislike Emma a lot.

O’Neil taunts the reader. She pushes your ethics to the very brink, stretches that elastic band and tries and tries to make it snap, to almost concede and see it from the other ignorant side that perhaps people who aren’t altogether kind may potentially deserve it. Call it karma. But that’s not the way it works. There’s no way of rationalising rape into something that can be excused. Emmie isn’t always a nice character and yet… And yet, if you’re human enough to see the act of rape for what it is — a horrible, life-ruining invasion of someone’s person… If you’re able to pass O’Neil’s very well crafted test, you feel completely and utterly heartbroken for Emmie. Because regardless of the way she acted that night, regardless of what she’d taken and consumed. Regardless of whether she consensually (and there’s still a bit of a question mark over that for me) had sex with one of the boys who later went on to be involved gang raping Emmie.

Regardless of all that, Emma O’Donovan is a person. No amount of flaws or mistakes, no matter what she wore or whether she made the decision to have fun and get drunk. No matter who she kissed or otherwise. Emma is a human being who didn’t ask for her world to be turned upside down, to be second guessed.

Louise O’Neil perfectly executed this storyline. And although there was little in the way of a light at the end of the tunnel and the book just sort of… ended. ‘Asking For It’ was how it should be, putting into perspective how rape can completely obliterate a person and the progression of their life. How it can put an immeasurable amount of paint on not only the victim, but on her family too. Not least her friendships. In fact, the only people Emmie truly seemed to have left who actually wanted to support her were brother, Bryan, and childhood friend, Conor. Her parents, and the small town in which she lived, inevitably turned their back on her, and I think what hurt the most for me was that her parents genuinely put keeping up appearances before getting justice for the brutal attack upon their daughter.

The narrative of ‘Asking For It’ is intrinsically important and I will never not commend Louise O’Neil for what she has achieved with this book. Everyone needs to slapped in the face with it, because the soul-crushing perspective and social commentary are an absolute necessity for all.

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8 thoughts on “‘Asking For It’ by Louise O’Neil

  1. Shannon

    I've heard so many good things about this book — it looks like such a thought provoking read. Definitely going to have to buy it soon!

    pinklemonadeandpaperbacks.blogspot.com

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  2. Alice Marshall

    It's definitely thought provoking. It gives such an important and harrowing perspective and, honestly, it was so well done. I'm very excited about this author and the messages she strings together!

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  3. KliScruggs

    I read this book earlier this year and had a similar reaction to it. I think it’s a horrifying but important read for all of us. I didn’t think about the fact it was a deliberate choice Emma wasn’t altogether likable, but I like you pointed it out. I also appreciated the ending, even though it enraged me. I felt frustrated by her parents “getting back together” after she decides not to press charges and how it reinforced everything she had been told by the media and society. It’s disheartening at it’s best and terrifying at worst to know we live in a place that doesn’t take women’s accusations seriously.

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    • Alice Marshall

      The greatest thing a book of fiction (or any book really, regardless of whether it’s fiction or non-fiction) is the perspective it can offer us, and Asking For It in particular is so important in illustrating how horrendous victim blaming in our society right now is and the narrative surrounding sexual assault. Emma’s characterisation was so clever and so common I think in the whole ‘well what was she wearing? was she under the influence?’ thing when it comes to someone reporting rape, so I’m glad I could point that out to you (I mean, I’m not 100% that was Louise’s intentions, but I think it probably was). It’s heartbreaking, all of it. And the fact it effected her relationship with Conor too and how she saw herself was just… horrible. As a society, I think we need to completely change the way we view rape/sexual assault, especially in our justice system. Because, honestly, I don’t think men would be taken seriously either, thought for entirely different reasons of their masculinity coming into question if they somehow managed to get raped… This is why we need feminism!

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  4. KliScruggs

    I agree, we do need to change the way we perceive and deal with sexual assault/rape. I think the first step is how we teach sex education and what we teach our children is normal and acceptable in terms of sex. When we talk about sex, we rarely talk about how to make it a pleasurable experience for women and brush under the rug the first time will likely PHYSICALLY hurts them. We also romanticize virginity and the “first time” as if it’s the best sex you’ll ever have your whole life and it’s all downhill from there. Sex is supposed to be something emotionally bonding for both people and it should be enjoyable for both parties, not just for one. Why that’s such a radical concept is a mystery to me.

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    • Alice Marshall

      Yes, yes, yes!! At school, all my ‘sex education’ really was (put in adverted commas, because was it really educational at all?!) was being told, aged 11 or so, how our bodies were going to change through puberty. And then later on, about STIs and how to put a condom on. It’s really lacking in any sort of substance at all. In fact, all it did was make me feel more scared that there was a 99% chance I would either get pregnant or die – which is never good when your education replicates an iconic Mean Girls quote, right?! And I think this stems a lot into mental health too. There needs to be more discussion on mental health within school, because so often not being taught properly about sex can lead to insecurities and anxieties that develop and develop until it’s out of control. What’s weird as well is I sort of get why perhaps religious schools don’t delve into it (though it’s the 21st century, so really they should), but I went to a state school, so there’s no reason why we shouldn’t address the fact in this day and age sex isn’t just about procreation, therefore let’s make sure everyone is well informed and having a good damn time!

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  5. KliScruggs

    I completely agree with everything you just said! I had basically the same kind of sex education and they only taught the GUYS how to put on a condom. To their credit, they did emphasize female condoms. I mean, even if the school is religious, I’d argue properly educating your children about sex so they don’t hurt themselves or others is essential, even if you don’t believe and support pre-marital sex. I mean, if your partner is hurting or not having a good time, that should be a sign to stop, but for some reason people don’t have that common sense. Regarding the mental health in school, that’s a really great point and I think normalizing MH would reduce the stigma around it and help others be more compassionate. People should be more aware.

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    • Alice Marshall

      Funnily enough, they taught everyone about putting condoms on – girls and boys. They advised us to bring in phallic shaped fruit so we could do it and it was the most awkward, ridiculous thing ever. I’m not actually sure why it was on the curriculum, it just seemed like something funny to do.. Yes, agreed! Especially nowadays when mental health issues are more prominent in young people. The thing is, I think the older generation currently still believes so much in teenage melodrama and hormones and don’t take them seriously. I’d like to think when we’re the teachers and the parents and whatnot, we’ll be so much more sensitive and aware of it that people can actually get the help they need without being afraid to speak up!

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