Louise O’Neill’s novel, Asking For It, is hard-hitting, frightening and all-too-real.
The story opens with a conversation between a group of teenage girls – they’re discussing school, exams, boyfriends and parties – the usual stuff, however it quickly reveals the pecking order among the girls and it’s eighteen year old Emma, who’s on top.
Emma is beautiful, confident, nasty and manipulative. Her ‘friends’ are more like followers and she takes advantage of them at any opportunity. She flirts, drinks, parties hard, steals boyfriends, has casual sex.
“Boys with girlfriends are my favourite. You don’t have to worry that they’re going to tell tales afterwards.”
And then Emma is gang-raped at a party. And the rapists, who happen to be the town football stars, take explicit photos of the unconscious Emma and post them on Facebook.
O’Neill could have simply led the reader down a well-worn path – that Emma was ‘asking for it’, on account of being drunk, wearing a revealing dress, having already had consensual sex that night – but by making her character so unlikable, there’s a suggested (but not articulated) whiff of ‘she deserved it’. The combined result is an extremely confronting and powerful story that has a realistic and thought-provoking ending.
“You know I’m on your side, right? I was just asking if it was, like rape rape.”
There’s so much I could say about this book, but first, this:
I wish this book wasn’t topical. I wish we didn’t have to fictionalise these kinds of stories to begin conversations with teens (or adults). I wish that everyone agreed that the only thing that causes rape is rapists. But while there’s even a hint of blame on the victims of rape; just the whisper of the words ‘she was asking for it’ or ‘well, what did she think would happen…?’ we will continue to have a society that excuses violent and criminal behaviour. And shit like this will keep happening.
This book is extremely well-written (and far more realistic than a similar story I read earlier in the year, Viral). O’Neill’s language is accurate, believable and horrifying without relying on ‘shock’ scenes that are blatantly graphic. In fact, it’s her use of repeated imagery and phrases that stand out, playing over and over again for the reader, as they would in Emma’s mind.
“I see the photos etched through the thin veil of my eyelids… Pink flesh. Splayed legs. Slut, bitch, whore.”
O’Neill manages to ask the hard questions and expose the common prejudices about rape in this story. They’re not new ideas but the character of Emma gives them shape and perhaps a starting point for conversations about rape and rape culture. Importantly, the story also covers the associated issues of slut shaming, victim blaming, consent, bullying and peer pressure.
4/5 Frighteningly real (and I wish it wasn’t so).
I received my copy of Asking For It from the publisher, Quercus Books, via NetGalley, in exchange for an honest review.
As part of the 20 Books of Summer reading challenge, I’m comparing the Belfast summer and the Melburnian winter – the results for the day I finished this book (July 4): Belfast 10°-15°, Melbourne 10°-17°.