Asking For It by Louise O’Neill
Young Adult Fiction
Paperback, 346 pages
Published September 3rd 2015 by Quercus UK
Asking For It starts at 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 and 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…
Emma O’Donovan is not the most likable character. She and her friends can be cruel and conniving. They are always in competition with one another and the other girls in their town. It’s all about power, attention, and popularity for them. But while you’re cringing about these “Mean Girls,” O’Neill makes you really get into Emma’s head and understand her.
This was an aspect of this novel that I really appreciated. While O’Neill tackles rape culture and patriarchy, she does it very thoroughly. Not only through the actions of the boys at Emma’s school, not only in her community’s reaction to what happens, but also within Emma herself and her friends.
In stark and compelling narration, we see what it’s like to fall from being Queen B, and what it’s like to be slut-shamed and victim-blamed. While reading this book, I couldn’t put it down. It’s so harsh sometimes that it made me sick to my stomach. The author really gets to the marrow of rape culture, especially in a small town and the age of social media.
While it’s hard to say that this book was enjoyable per se, it was certainly compelling. It takes you out of your own head and places you squarely in Emma’s. You see that she’s clearly not perfect and makes mistakes. You see the way her perspective is completely warped by society’s view of women and girls.
And although Emma is not likable or perfect, she is otherwise very close to the “perfect victim” persona. She’s a beautiful white girl whose looks are constantly being lauded. O’Neill uses this to show how girls and women are viewed as objects. She also uses it to highlight aspects of the “asking for it” myth and Emma’s own self-blame. However, this is something that happens daily to women and girls of varying outward appearances. I would have liked to see more nuance in this character’s depiction.
Furthermore, there is a lack of diversity in this novel. It is set in small town Ireland which is not likely the most diverse of places. However, O’Neill could have done this in a more self-aware way.
I also found the secondary characters not completely fleshed out. I did, however, find this pretty realistic. It’s in first person narration after all. Furthermore, Emma is pretty self-involved. That’s understandable as she’s a teenager and a survivor of sexual assault.
This is a very introspective novel that tackles is a stark way what it’s like to be a girl in today’s society in a world of social media. It also tackles what that’s like when you’re the victim of sexual assault. O’Neill does not sugar coat anything and does not make everything okay. Because it’s not.
If you’re a plot-driven reader, this story is probably not for you. Asking For It is definitely a character driven novel exploring the effects of patriarchy on girls and society and the psychological effects of surviving sexual assault.
The point of this book is not what happens or how it happens. It’s about Emma O’Donovan. About who she is Before and After, and why that is. It’s about her reaction to what happens. The reaction of her friends, her family, her community, and the media.
Though not a perfect book, Asking For It is an important read. It deals with very real and prevalent issues in a way that fosters compassion and understanding on the part of those outside the situation. We see Emma’s decline first hand.
Want more young adult titles that deal with the issues of rape culture and sexual assault? Check out this list.
Beth is the founder and editor of Fuelled by Fiction. She is a twenty-something east coast Canadian girl who loves writing about books and feminism.