Having read three books recently that focused quite specifically on classic literature and the Victorian period, I decided to shake things up again and grab something much more contemporary for my next read. Options were aplenty, with multiple titles jumping out at me desperate to be read. In the end, however, I decided on an author that I had told myself I was going to go back to, but had never found the time until now; Louise O’Neill. Louise has made quite a name for herself in the both the YA and wider literary world. Her first novel, Only Every Yours, was a massive success, compared to the likes of Margaret Attwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale. I for one really enjoyed it, so I approached her second novel Asking for It, with pretty high expectations, especially considering the praise it had already gotten from such a vast audience.
Asking for It is set in a small town in Ireland, the kind of place where everyone knows everyone and every event is something to be commented upon. Emma O’Donovan lives here, but she is different. She’s beautiful, special, loved by all the boys and envied by all of the girls. Her popularity gives her power and she’s determined to keep it that way. Yet even Emma is not immune from the consequences of what happens that night. Now she is nothing, reduced to meager body parts, her pictures spread everywhere, the word slut hounding her every day. Emma is beautiful, she loved to flirt, she thrived on tiny dresses and skirts – she was asking for it, wasn’t she?
Obviously one of the first things which comes to mind when you pick this book up and understand its main themes are just how current and crucial to today’s society the book really is. The past few years have seen massive cultural movements regarding both slut shaming and sexual assault. Rape culture is something we’re only just learning to talk about and to discuss, and it’s terrifying that in a society that considers itself intelligent and developed that we still have individuals that are not only capable of committing such horrific acts, but that there are also people who are so immediately keen to pass the blame onto the victim. The phrase ‘she was asking for it’ is all too often uttered as some sort of justification. It’s not, and it’s never going to be, and in this novel Louise O’Neill explores all of the different aspects which come into play following such an event. She paints a colourful picture for us, one that is all to damming in its uncanny resemblance to our society.
The other thing which also struck me forcibly upon starting this novel was the fact that the central protagonist Emma is not a likeable person. The author has written her in such a way that she pretty much embodies that mean teenage girl persona, caring more for her looks and the power she holds than being a good person to those around her. At one point early on in the novel another girl comes up to Emma to say hello and Emma brushes her off, staring at her acne which has ravaged her face and wishing ‘she would go and see a dermatologist’ (p. 14). There is no sympathy or understanding for the other girl, only disgust. Likewise, she recounts having worried about a new girl coming to town but feeling relieved when she realised that yes ‘she was pretty’ but ‘she wasn’t prettier than me’ (p. 18). For Emma, her beauty is the key to everything, to how she is viewed by society and how she is going to get advantages in the world because of it. It’s a sentiment we see young girls worry about far too much, and Emma very much solidifies this.
As quickly as we see that Emma is a not likeable person, we just as quickly come to make sense of the dynamics in the relationships around her, especially with regards to her closest friends. Each of her friends are clearly assigned roles in her lives, serving a purpose of some sort. Emma may be seen as the ring leader, but the other girls can also be just as bad, each of them often lying to the others and being clearly thrilled at certain times when they see their friend upset or hurting. It really brings to mind the term ‘frenemy’. This clashing of friendship and rivalry is all too common in today’s society and sees girls tearing each other down rather than coming together in solidarity.
Emma then, is not what you might consider to be a kind person, but this only makes the novel all the more complex. Does being unkind make sexual assault and sexual violence okay? Does it justify it to society? The author wants us to question this, she wants us to call complicated topics into question, making us think through our own answers even if it makes for uncomfortable reading. Above all else, you get the sense that the author is unapologetic to the highest degree for what she has created. Even if you don’t find Emma likable, even if she does have a lot of sex and enjoy it, even if you don’t feel sympathy for her on a day to day basis, it does not give someone the right to violate her body without consent. The scariest part is that what happens in the book is truly horrific, and you can’t imagine anyone wanting to have sex with someone who is basically passed out, but it does happens! The book is not amping up the plot for a more dramatic effect; it is all very true and realistic, and I think this is when YA is at its finest. Its challenging us and the way the world operates, making us understand the message and taking us outside of our comfort zone whilst still allowing us to explore this in a safe environment.
The book of course doesn’t just focus on the sole event and what it does to Emma herself. It also examines the wider reach it has upon such a small town and how opinions can differ and vary depending on personal view points. It’s also interesting to consider the way she chooses to portray many of the boys involved. The most worrying aspect is the way that someone can truly not see that what they have done is wrong, that what they have done is willfully ignorant of the basic decency of being a human being. Of course, in a world like today where social media seems to be at the forefront of everything, this also plays its part in the book, affirming for readers just how easy it is for people behind screens to become a commentator and a judge on something they were not even part of.
I will say that whilst this book is commendable for its portrayal of modern society and its extremely relevant topic, I didn’t enjoy it as much as I did her debut novel, Only Ever Yours. This one felt a bit more surface level, despite the complexity within its realism. I could almost see that there was an agenda of sorts at play here and that there was a clear purpose to the novel, and it made me more aware of the novel actually being a piece of work as opposed to getting lost completely in the story and the characters. I also felt that at times it fell a bit flat and I wasn’t sure how much substance there was if you took the social contexts out of the equation.
Even so, whilst this is by no means a happy book, it is a well constructed and extremely important one. Perhaps a fairytale ending would be ideal for the reader, but that’s not true to life, and I think above all else this book remains a true representation of life. If you’re a fan of YA or want a more contemporary read, this is the one for you.
‘To read this book is to see the mirror image of what we call our modern, civilised world. The author paints a colourful picture for us, one that is all to damming in its uncanny resemblance to our society, and one that we cannot turn a blind eye to’.
Publisher: River Run