Review

Asking For It by Louise O’Neill

asking-for-it“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.

The 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.

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…”

This book made me angry.  Ragingly, incandescently angry.  But not at the book.  It made me angry at the media and the way it influences our view of rape; it made me angry at the cruelty enabled by the anonymity of the internet; and most of all, it made me angry at myself when I realized that I’ve internalized some of these hurtful, hateful attitudes in ways I hadn’t expected.

The book is broken into two sections: the week leading up to Emma’s assault, and a week of events taking place about a year later.  The readability of the book is also, to my mind, broken into two sections.  For me, the first part was muddled and hard to follow.  It jumps back and forth between the “present” of the story and things that happened in the past, often with no warning.  It makes the prose feel jagged and thrown together awkwardly.  The second part smooths out significantly, while still giving a fairly clear picture of what had happened in the intervening year.

Perhaps part of the issue with readability in the first half is that O’Neill makes a bold choice in having her main character be unlikable in the extreme.  She says mean things, she acts in hurtful ways, and she struts around like an entitled prima dona.  She is, in short, a perfect portrayal of the girls in high school that were revered by some and hated by most.  She even admits to sleeping with guys who have girlfriends specifically because they won’t be able to talk about what happened, which allows her to control her own narrative.

And then she gets raped.  And we as readers are asked to care.

Of course, we do care.  There’s never any excuse for rape.  Never mind that Emma was drunk and took illegal drugs before the assault.  Never mind that she had a reputation in her small town.  There’s no excuse.

And yet, the first half of the book challenges your ability to not blame someone who is pushing every button we have.  That little bit about sleeping with other girls’ boyfriends is calculated to dampen your sympathy.  This is where I got angry at myself, because although I didn’t think Emma deserved what happened to her, I couldn’t like her.  It made me confront that maybe I still have a bit of the old parochial attitude that women should be somewhat responsible for their own safety in this regard.  It’s tricky, because where do you draw the line between natural caution and blaming the victim?  It’s so easy to tip over to the blaming side of things.  I finally realized that the author appears to be showing us that we can dislike a person and their actions without blaming them for something that isn’t in their control.

After that, the social media circus that follows, complete with tons of pictures, provides quite enough fuel for the rest of the book.  What we see Emma going through is horrifying–her father can barely look at her, the priest who baptized her sympathizes with the boys accused in her rape, countless online articles dissecting her actions–and it’s no wonder that she devolves into seeing herself as nothing but an object.  She has become a hashtag, a symbol, a talking point, no longer a real person.  It underscores what we all need to remember: that behind the headlines that we see and our methods of online “support”, there are real people that need real actions taken beyond just lip service.

The novel ends ambiguously, and even bleakly.  Will Emma be able to weather what comes next?  We don’t know.  It’s chilling to get to the end of this book and have gone through all of these feelings and not have resolution.  But that’s reality.  We don’t always get resolution.

While I was initially skeptical of this novel, by the time I reached the end I realized just what a roller coaster the author had taken me on, and I appreciated what it took to do that.  I can’t say that I enjoyed the book, but I do think that this is a novel that should be widely read.

This book was a personal purchase.

(Description nicked from Goodreads.com.)

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