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.