Book Review: Asking For It (Louise O’Neill)
Release Date: September 3rd 2015
Summary (from Goodreads):
It’s the beginning of the summer in a small town in Ireland. Emma O’Donovan is eighteen 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…
Anyone who’s been round my blog a bit will know I’m a fan of Louise O’Neill. I fell in love with her first book, Only Ever Yours when I read it earlier this year, so much so that’s I’ve started buying it as a gift for everyone I know. I also did a post recently about books I was desperate to read, and this was easily top of the pile.
After reading the post, in which I gave away one of the books I really wanted to read instead of buying it for myself, my lovely partner decided to buy me two of the books from the post, Asking For It being one of them. I read it immediately, half on the way to work and half on the way home. And then I sat in the train station and felt like I wanted to cry.
Asking For It won’t be for everyone. Given the events of the book, it’s not surprising. For some, it could be very triggering, so if the subject is one you’re sensitive to then my general advice would be to stay away (then again, it’s up to you). Some may find it too uncomfortable. I did, to a certain extent. There’s too many real life cases it mirrors – the Steubenville and Maryville cases in the USA and so-called ‘Slane girl’ in Ireland to name a couple cited by O’Neill herself. That was something that really hit home whilst reading the book: sometimes it’s easy to dismiss things as fiction, and the extent of the events and reactions in the book makes you want to, but it should make you angry that this kind of thing happens in real life.
The book starts fairly slowly – you could easily mistake it for your typical teenage ‘summer that everything changed’ story, which I guess it is, in a way. I think this is important to set up the characters, especially Emma. It’s brave to write this story from the victim’s point of view, and it’s even braver to write such an unlikeable one. I didn’t sympathise with Emma very much in the beginning, aside from the part in the back of my mind which knew what was going to happen to her.
I think this was a really important point to make, and is one of key things about the book for me. In some rape cases, sympathy for the victim comes easily; in others, we blame then. In both cases, it’s not the victims fault, whatever they were doing/drinking/wearing. It’s easy to feel sorry for the straight A, loved-by-all girl walking home in her school uniform. Why is it harder to feel the same for the girl drunk off her face and in a short skirt? It shouldn’t be, is the answer, but that’s what seems to happen in society.
The reactions of Emma’s friends and family were one of the most painful things to read, and they’re what stuck with me most when I finished reading. In particular was the ending, which I can’t say too much about without spoiling it. To me it was the worst of let downs to feel your parents weren’t really on your side. I’ve been in a similar situation myself there and it still upsets me to this day that sometimes parents would rather believe you’re lying because it makes things easier for them.
While reading, I couldn’t help thinking of my younger sisters, who are a little younger than Emma (13 and 15) but will get to her age sooner than I’d like, and I do worry for their safety. More, curiously, than I ever did for my own at that age. I think there’s that sense of confidence and ‘it’ll never happen to me’ that comes with youth. In reality, the only difference between me and Emma is luck, and perhaps keeping some better company. But I’ve been so drunk I don’t know what’s going on, I’ve gone out in tiny dresses and acted promiscuously. And I wonder, if something had happened, if people would have said I was asking for it too?
Reading the note from Louise O’Neill at the end struck another chord with me. There’s a lot of talk about what rape is and isn’t, and she is very clear about it: there’s sex where both people consent, and there’s rape. There’s no in between, despite the differences people try to make (rape rape etc) and I felt one of the worst comments in the book was when a character says, “I didn’t say yes,” and the reply is, “But you didn’t say no.”
O’Neill said that, when talking about the book and the idea of consent with friends and family, a lot then came forward and said they’d had similar things happen to them, that they hadn’t really thought of as wrong until now. Not as extreme as Emma’s case, I’m imagining, but still times where it wasn’t sex between two consenting adults.
This made me think of a situation of my own that I hadn’t thought about as too wrong before, but it bothers me a lot more after reading the book. In my first year of university, I started going out with a guy I met. It was still early days (my subtle way of saying we hadn’t slept together), and we went out for drinks with friends. I got very drunk on £2 vodka and cokes, we went back to my flat and had sex. I didn’t remember it at all the next day. A while later, the story had gotten around with friends and I remember one of them laughing with me because apparently I passed out during it. I laughed it off, but it didn’t sound right to me. It also bothered me more as I knew he was stone cold sober that night.
It’s not a situation I would normally talk about, and it’s not something I would ‘cry rape’ over, but it also doesn’t sit right with me anymore. I don’t really know how I feel about sharing it, but it’s been on my mind since reading the book.
As with my Only Ever Yours post, this has been more of a thought splurge than a review, but I like that O’Neill brings that out of me. O’Neill’s writing hits you like a punch in the stomach and you’ll still be reeling from it weeks later. This is an important book for everyone to read, young and old, male and female, and I will be recommending it to everyone. Don’t expect to like it, but do expect to be thinking about it long after you’ve finished.
If you enjoyed this, you might like You Against Me by Jenny Downham