Published by Quercus on September 3rd 2015
Genres: Contemporary Fiction, Young Adult
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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. \r\nThe 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. \r\nPhotographs 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...\r\n
Asking For It by Louise O’Neill is an amazing story, and I don’t think this book gets the attention it sorely deserves. And I will do my best to review it adequately, but please forgive typos, because I am doped up on Nyquil. Trigger warning: Rape and bullying.
Emma is, by all accounts, a normal teenager in Ireland. She parties, she has a few close friends, she’s into boys. She’s also confident and a little egotistical. But all of that changes when videos and photos of her male classmates running train on her appears on Facebook. To cap it all off, she remembers none of it.
“Rape culture” is a polarizing topic. I, myself, have certainly been on the fence as I see both sides duke it out in online articles and on friends’ feeds. And let me be clear: when I say I’m on the fence, I’m certainly not victim-blaming or thinking boys have a right to do that to girls when the girls are incapable of saying no. I’m on the fence in regards to decisions that lead there. Or…I was. For the first 100 pages or so, I was bored. The story moved very slowly as it established her character. And, frankly I hated Emma. I thought she was bitchy and self-centered…and yes, a part of me thought she might have been asking for it. But something strange happened, and somewhere in the middle of Asking For It, I began to feel sorry for her. And then I got mad for her. And suddenly, I was no longer on the fence. I was solidly on #TeamEmma.
“They are all innocent until proven guilty. But not me. I am a liar until I am proven honest.”
O’Neill writes a very captivating story. Here is this girl who makes poor decisions that lead her to being essentially gang-raped – by boys she was “friends” with. The author wants you to hate her and question her, and she explains why Emma is such a frustrating character. That’s the whole point of the book: even the worst of people don’t deserve this to happen to them. It begs the question: Why are we teaching our girls to avoid rape, instead of teaching our boys that a lack of “no” does not mean yes? Why are we not teaching them to respect women? Emma’s spiral down into the pits of depression was vivid and authentic. She considered her ways out. She watched her family fall apart – and blamed herself. She wasn’t just a victim of rape; she was also a victim of society. I’ve said it so many times: sexual and domestic violence victims are victims twice: first by the perpetrator of the crime and then again by society who looks for reasons why this thing might have happened to her. Was it because her skirt was too short? Was it because he knew she wasn’t wearing panties? Was it because she dared to get drunk and flirt with them? Answer: None of these things is an acceptable answer to violate someone. Just because someone is perceived as morally indecent doesn’t give someone else the right to violate them.
“That’s what it feels like now, like a cancer is spreading, and I can’t do anything to stop it. I don’t have any control over it.”
Asking For It also shows the vilification of sexual assault victims through social media. Emma’s friends turn on her with taunts on Facebook, disparaging comments and words like slut, whore, bitch. As such, Emma struggles with her own guilt for what she thinks is her place in this whole mess. If only she hadn’t done this or that, she’d be okay and they wouldn’t have done that to her. The if, then scenarios that play out in her mind made me sad and angry that anyone ever has to feel that way. The relationships in Asking For It are all complex and very well-rounded. Emma struggles with her parents before and after the rape, particularly with her mother, whose main goal in life is good perception of her family. She spent her time before telling Emma how beautiful she is and fussed about family appearances. This makes the tragedy all the more hurtful, because who exactly is rooting for Emma?
“I want to eat them. I want to make myself fat on their innocence.”
There is a peculiar sort of loss of innocence in Emma’s story. Was she an innocent girl? Of course not. She made bad decisions, she took unnecessary risks. But she was still a child, convinced she was invincible, because she had never learned she wasn’t. I think a lot of readers will struggle with the ending of this story. But I loved it. Sometimes endings are wrapped up in a bright red bow, but I am glad that O’Neill leaves this ending messy and ugly. As a reader, yes, I was frustrated by it, but it was also authentic and truthful. And with subject matter such as this, we really can’t ask for anything more, can we?