Asking For It
“They are all innocent until proven guilty. But not me. I am a liar until I am proven honest.”
Emma O’Donovan is beautiful, popular and more than a bit arrogant. One night Emma is at a party. She is the centre of attention. She drinks too much, she takes some drugs. The next morning she wakes up half naked on her front porch, bruised and sunburnt. She has no recollection of how she got there. Slowly, through Facebook posts and whispers in school, she pieces together the awful truth.
O’Neill’s second novel has been topping bestseller lists and has received a lot of hype in the media. It is a powerful read, O’Neill does not pull any punches. Unrelentingly bleak, this is not an easy read but it is certainly a very important one. O’Neill explores the complexities of rape cases and how they are treated in the media, and looks at questions surrounding consent and culpability. One of the strengths of the novel is that Emma is no “perfect” victim. She isn’t likeable, she undercuts the self-esteem of even her closest friends and flirts with their boyfriends. When her friend Jamie is raped at a party, Emma’s reaction is far from ideal:
“You didn’t say no […] You told me you didn’t say no.”
” But […] I didn’t say yes either.”
The reluctance of both girls to use the word rape is explained by the reaction of their community to the attack on Emma. The boys who assaulted her are local sporting stars, and she is blamed for ruining their lives. There is much to commend in O’Neill’s novel. None of the characters come out well, except perhaps Emma’s brother. O’Neill shows how Emma is destroyed by the rape, and the impact it has on her community. She also reveals the damaging impact of how the discussions of these cases in the media can be. The fact O’Neill’s book has drawn on true cases makes this all the more chilling. She shows how hurtful social media can be, the images from that horrific night are spread around the whole school, and further, and the comments further Emma’s spiral into despair. The ending is as bleak as the ending of Only Ever Yours, but without the distance provided by the dystopian setting it is all the more horrific. For Irish readers, O’Neill’s fictionalised Irish village is very familiar. The repetition of certain phrases and images are very striking, this is a book that will haunt readers.
This is another hard-hitting triumph for Louise O’Neill, and it is certainly deserving of all the hype it has received. O’Neill has been involved with consent campaigns run by the Dublin Rape Crisis Centre and UCD and written a number of powerful articles. Asking For It and O’Neill’s outspokenness about the issues in the book will start a lot of important conversations and raise awareness about consent. O’Neill has signed a new deal for two adult books with Quercus, and I am really looking forward to seeing what she writes next.
Louise O’Neill will be speaking at DeptCon, a YA convention in Dublin later this month. Check out the full programme here.