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Book Review: Asking For It by Louise O’Neill

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After being extremely disappointed in The Female of the Species, I wanted to read another book that examines rape culture and everyday misogyny and I found this at my library. And guess what? Asking For It was everything I wanted from The Female of the Species and most importantly, it delivered. It is a fresh and utterly heartbreaking examination of the way we treat our girls vs our boys. and you know how people say this book or that should be on every high school curriculum. I have never felt so passionate that this book should be in the hands of every teen everywhere.

Set in contemporary Ireland, this story revolves around Emma O’Donovan, a high school teen. This book is split into two parts, “Last year” following Emma before she was raped and then “This year” following how she is coming to terms with it.

One of the many, many things I loved about this book is the way our main character is written. Usually, authors will write the rape victim as a sort of quiet outsider who is naturally and instantaneously sympathetic. However Emma, our protagonist, embodies a lot of qualities that you usually don’t associate with YA protagonists. She’s beautiful and she knows it, flaunting it at every turn; she is selfish and superficial and she is a shitty friend. She is by all accounts a mean girl. I just really liked that this character existed in this type of story because many of us cannot instantly connect with her. She is everything a victim blamer accuses when a girl is raped. She was wearing something too low cut. She took drugs. She shouldn’t have been out alone. So because of all these, she deserved to be raped. Even in the aftermath, her friends tell her about all the shitty things she’s done telling her that she deserved it. But O’Neill shows you how ridiculous that statement is. How can someone ask for rape? And it’s absolutely heartbreaking seeing her so confident to self-doubting herself and feeling like her body doesn’t even belong to her in the second half of the book. What’s interesting about the characters in general is that they are just so real and they are less a product of this culture so much that they are perpetrators of this insidious culture. There is no audience character stand in to fight for rights. For example, her brother tells her not to wear skimpy clothing which is the exact moment Emma stares pointedly at the picture of the bikini model on his wall.

‘What’s wrong with what I’m wearing?”

‘I don’t know, Em.’..’It’s a bit slutty, isn’t it’

I stare pointedly at the FHM poster tacked onto the wall opposite the bed, of some topless model, one finger in her mouth, the other hand reaching into her knickers.

‘That’s different.’

And yet her brother is the one that stands up for her wholeheartedly after she was raped even when her mom and dad wouldn’t.

In most other books about rape, the line for rape is clearly defined but not so in this one where consent is dubious. Of course, yes means yes, and no means no but in a real situation, it’s not so simple. O’Neill sees where these perceptions of victim blaming and rape culture come from but seeing Emma afterwards blaming herself and believing these harmful societal “truths”, she asks us to reevaluate these perceptions that have become so deeply entrenched in our society, how they stamp girls like Emma worthless burying her worth under judgemental stereotypes and making the other characters feel as though her worth can be reduced to a “punishment”, but more devastatingly a “deserved punishment”.

The aftermath is especially heartbreaking because parts of it reminded me of the Stanford cause where the perpetrator himself was supported and people empathized with him because his career was ruined and they blamed her. Never mind the trauma that she has to face for the rest of her life. Through claustrophobic writing and the aching deterioration of Emma’s health, you understand why women don’t come out and convict the rapist. You understand the exhausting ordeal of bringing the case to trial that takes up to 2 years to resolve.

Of course, none of this would be half as well conveyed if it weren’t for O’Neill’s brilliant writing. First off, I can’t attest to this one but a lot of people have said how very accurate the depiction of what it’s like to be an Irish teen. The first half is very dialogue-heavy which works so well with Asking For It because the way she writes dialogue is so uncanny. It is so realistic and true that I feel as if I know exactly which person in my life has said what line in this book. O’Neill has this writing style when it comes to parentheses. The flashbacks aren’t pages and pages of Emma’s past in between the present. Instead a character will allude to something that we don’t know about and Emma will quickly flashback to how she felt about that event in parentheses. Or Emma will say something but think something completely different.

She pulls down the sun visor and watches me in the mirror to see my reaction. I laugh too. (Fucking bitch)

It does take some time to get use to but it’s really effective once you get the hang of it.

The ending is “bleakly ambiguous” as the author points out in her afterword. There’s no heroics, no “girl power” moments, no wish-fulfillment, no epic showdown, no resolution for Emma. And as depressing as it was, it made so much more of an impact on me and brings the concept that this isn’t about winning or losing or even getting justice. It’s about changing the perceptions we have about rape, its sexist origins, its perpetrators, and its victims. The theme should be nothing new and yet time and time again, the news (most recently in India) shows how we trivialize sexual assault. Therein lies the odd and tiring contradiction: As boys grow older, they are pressured into having sex and with lots of partners. And as girls grow older, they are pressured not to or not to have many partners, not to wear anything revealing, not to drink, not to walk alone, not to get attention. Where, I ask you, is the compromise?

I don’t even know if this review is coherent but there are just no words to describe how cutting this book is. Please read it.

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6 thoughts on “Book Review: Asking For It by Louise O’Neill

  1. Hi Carolyn,
    nice review 🙂
    This book is so enthralling and heartbreaking, I loved and hated it at the same time. To witness all the things that Emma has to go through… Still an unputdownable novel!
    I also liked the ending, because it felt real, true. On the other hand, it was so frustrating… This is definitely not a book I will forget about soon.

    Liked by 1 person

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