READ: September 2015
FORMAT: Kindle ebook
OVERALL RATING: ★★★★
This review contains discussions of rape/sexual assault/rape culture.
I went into Louise O’Neill’s second novel, Asking For It, fully prepared for a dark, difficult read. In addition to the numerous reviews I read prior to its publication, I read her debut novel Only Ever Yours earlier this year, and loved it. So I was very interested to see how O’Neill would tackle the issues of rape culture and victim blaming in her second novel. She does, of course, handle these issues carefully and masterfully, by which I mean that this is one of the hardest, cruellest books I have ever read. Asking For It should upset you, and it should make you angry, but perhaps the most harrowing thing about this novel, is that it almost doesn’t feel like fiction.
Asking For It is about eighteen year old Emma O’Donovan, a beautiful, intelligent, popular girl, who goes out drinking one night, takes drugs, and wakes up the following morning on the front porch of her house with no recollection of what happened to her the night before. However, pictures begin to emerge on social media that show, in graphic detail, exactly what happened to Emma that night. The book is split into two halves: before the rape, and after. The connection between O’Neill’s novel and real cases, such as the Steubenville rape case, are very clear. I think this mirroring of reality and fiction is part of what makes this book so successful: it all feels so horribly familiar. You can’t help but connect it to other cases, and that only serves to make you even angrier.
I found that, for me personally, the hardest parts to read in this book were firstly Emma’s initial reaction to the suggestion that she has been raped, and secondly the total lack of support that she receives from her parents. Despite the fact that she is clearly unconscious in the photos posted on the ‘Easy Emma’ Facebook page, and that she therefore was incapable of giving consent, she is absolutely horrified that “that word” is being used; she cannot have been “that word”. She is terrified of the consequences of saying that she was raped, and unfortunately, she’s right to be. After Emma is convinced to press charges, the whole community seems to rally against her in defence of its heroes, and Emma cannot even turn to her parents for support. They are, in fact, far more concerned about how Emma’s accusation has damaged their reputation in the community. While the parents were the characters that infuriated me the most, none of the other characters come out of this book looking good, which is likely a deliberate choice on O’Neill’s part.
O’Neill makes every point there is to make about rape culture; the lack of understanding about what rape is, people’s apparent (and frankly, irrelevant) obsession about what the victim was wearing, whether the victim was drunk, or high, or if they’d consented to sex before, and the priority of the male narrative over the female narrative, or the attackers over the victims. O’Neill manages to successfully convey the misunderstanding that rape is about sex, when it’s actually about power.
O’Neill presents everything nearly objectively, it doesn’t have a moralising narrator and it doesn’t need one, because what happens in this book is so awful you’re going to react in the way that you need to react. That’s exactly why this book is so brilliant; it has the potential to educate those who may not know or understand anything about rape culture or victim blaming. It’s obviously garnered a lot of attention from those of us who do, but the best thing that could ever happen to this book is for it to fall into the hands of someone who doesn’t know, or doesn’t care to, so that they can start to understand.
In short, Asking For It is an incredible, powerful, important book. Once I started reading it, I couldn’t stop, and I ended up reading the whole book in one sitting. It made me angry, and it made me cry with frustration. So if you feel comfortable handling the subject matter, it’s one that I highly recommend.