I first saw this book on Rachel’s blog, and the things she had to say about it completely sold me. I had not heard of Louise O’Neill or her YA novel, Asking For It, but now that I’ve read this book I will never be the same.
About the book: Emma O’Donovan is beautiful. The most beautiful girl in Ballinatoom (small-town Ireland). Her looks allow her a certain amount of popularity and cruelty. She has many friends, although most of her socializing is for show and her own personal amusement. It turns out, despite what they say to her face, most of the people who know her don’t like Emma. So when she gets a little reckless at a party, being a little more daring than usual with drinks and drugs, she is raped and humiliated and no one seems to care. Pictures circulate on the internet. Everyone at school shuts Emma out. Her family is quick to punish, and the law is not on her side. The legal case will take years, and likely go nowhere. In the meantime, Emma’s life is destroyed as the boys blame her for the consequences they face. Everyone seems to think that Emma is the problem, for crying rape, when all along everyone knows she was asking for it.
“Skirts up to their backsides, and tops cut down to their belly buttons, and they’re all drinking too much and falling over in the streets, they’re practically asking to be attacked, and then when it happens, they start bawling crying over it. As your other man said, what do they expect?”
I have never been so close to DNFing a book. Sometimes I put a book down for ages, but never forever. If I think a book is bad, boring, or just not my taste, I soldier through. Asking For It had none of those problems. In the past I’ve been worried that I’m too callous/cynical because I can read anything without crying into my pillow at night. But Asking For It, fiction though it is, hit me hard. Several times while reading I had to put the book down, and I didn’t know if I would ever be able to pick it back up again.
“Boys are always telling me I’m beautiful, their eyes roaming around my body hungrily, as if looking for a place to plant a flag.”
A lot of the rape stories I’ve read lately have focused on “small” incidents, with the intent of proving that every sexual assault is unacceptable. Asking For It is not one of those stories. What happens to Emma is not “small” in any way. It’s shocking and devastating to read about how uniformly her community turns against her in the aftermath– but the horrors of this book are so real and important. This is supposed to be uncomfortable. Asking For It is a novel that’s not afraid to face hard truths. Emma fails to grasp a lot of the messages that this book is imparting, but they’re clear nonetheless: no matter what Emma wore or how she behaved, what happened to her is not her fault. The consequences the boys face for what happened to her is not her fault. Trying to capitalize on her beauty in an environment that has shown her that her beauty is her entire worth is not her fault.
I also want to talk about the fact that this is a YA novel. Emma is 18, a year from graduating. There were times while I was reading that I thought, “Wow, I would not want a teenager to read this and hate the world as much as I do right now.” But in the end, I think it’s even more crucial for young readers to experience stories this dark, because these things do happen to teenagers, to girls (and sometimes boys) who are unprepared and don’t think it could ever happen to them. Rape culture is that bad.
“How is it that two eyes, a nose, and a mouth can be positioned in such varying ways that it makes one person beautiful and another person not? What if my eyes had been a fraction closer together? Or if my nose had been flatter? My lips thinner or my mouth too wide? How would my life have been different? Would that night have happened?”
Okay, I’m talking too much about what this book made me feel, and not enough about how well it is written.
Asking For It is divided into two parts, “Last Year” and “This Year.” They are presented chronologically, and each fills about half of the novel. “Last year” starts before the rape, showing Emma with her family, friends, strangers, and acquaintances. The reader sees that she is mean, she is jealous, she is selfish. Reputation matters more to her than genuine regard, and every move she makes is calculated based on what her peers will think of it. It would be easy to hate Emma, but the novel also shows that she acts this way because she feels cornered. Ballinatoom has always put her beauty ahead of anything else, so she feels she must use it to her advantage, and that if she loses that advantage she will be left with nothing. It may be hard to like Emma at times, but she’s also got the sort of explosive personality that makes things happen and sucks the reader into the story immediately with the intensity of a ticking bomb. It’s impossible to look away.
“(I imagined Mam dying, what I would wear to the funeral, the glamour the tragedy would give me. I thought about how much easier my life would be if it were just me and Dad and Bryan.)”
The only detail I found issue with is the way Emma’s friends treat her immediately after seeing the pictures from the night of the disastrous party. They’re quick to exclude and blame her, and I just couldn’t understand how any girl (or person, for that matter) could look at pictures like that and think that what happened was voluntary. I didn’t understand how no one but a school counselor was concerned at all that Emma might not have wanted what happened. Clearly they dislike her enough to want to blame her, but I can’t imagine witnessing anything like what happens to Emma (as several of her peers do) and not thinking, “Oh my god, that girl needs help.”
” ‘You know I’m on your side, right? I was just asking if it was, like, rape rape.’ “
Side note: this has little bearing on the actual story, except as far as Irish law is concerned regarding rape charges, but I did love the Ireland setting. I didn’t realize before this novel, but my reading life has been sadly empty of Irish literature. I loved the sound of the names, the rhythm of the dialogue, the glimpse of culture. I will have to pick up more Irish lit in the future.
My reaction: 5 out of 5 stars. This book was emotional and incredibly difficult to read, but it does what it’s designed to do, and does it well. O’Neill has an undeniable command of language and a knack for unspoken meaning, and I will absolutely be reading more of her work. I’ll probably even buy my own copy of this book at some point– it was convenient to get it through the library this time, but I want to be able to revisit it and loan it out.
- If you’ve read and loved Asking For It (or haven’t yet) and are looking for more lit about rape culture, you should pick up Not That Bad, a collection of essays edited by Roxane Gay. This is a compellingly readable assembly of nonfiction from 30 writers who’ve dealt first-hand with some aspect of rape culture. It is just as eye-opening and important as the concepts highlighted in Asking For It.
- Mindy McGinnis’s The Female of the Species is another powerful YA novel about rape culture. Though this one’s dark and tragic as well (involving murder as well as rape), it’s a little more hopeful that things can change for the better.
Have you read a book that’s completely shaken you? A book that was difficult to read but you ended up glad to have experienced it?
The Literary Elephant