I’m part of a Feminist Book Club, and for next month we’re reading Asking For It by Louise O’Neill, a book that I had heard of briefly but didn’t know much about. Originally classed as YA, often today you’ll find this book among adult fiction and, honestly, even at 20 I found this book so difficult to read in terms of the themes and what happens in the book. Trigger warning for this discussion, as this book deals with rape, bullying, and suicide.
In a small town where everyone knows everyone, Emma O’Donovan is different. She is the special one – beautiful, popular, powerful. And she works hard to keep it that way.
Until that night . . .
Now, she’s an embarrassment. Now, she’s just a slut. Now, she is nothing.
And those pictures – those pictures that everyone has seen – mean she can never forget.
BOOK OF THE YEAR AT THE IRISH BOOK AWARDS 2015. The award-winning, bestselling novel about the life-shattering impact of sexual assault, rape and how victims are treated.
This first part of the review is spoiler-free, and I’ll indicate when I do go into spoiler territory. To start with, this book is all about a girl from a small town in Ireland who is gang raped after drinking and taking drugs, something that she has no memory of – only pictures that the boys took of her that were uploaded to social media.
The first half of this book leads up to this event, and whilst you go in knowing what will happen at the halfway mark, you are by no means ready for what will happen. Our protagonist, Emma O’Donovan, is not a character that you will like. Part of the popular crowd at school, she is mean, vindictive, spiteful, and all-in-all a horrible person, and it is this that makes this book even worse than you can imagine. Because, as a reader, you don’t like her. But you’re with her as she goes through this traumatic event and want to fight this battle for her as people turn on her, yet part of you still remembers how awful of a person she is. It’s like a huge slap to the face, a constant reminder that it doesn’t matter who she is or what she’s done – no one deserves to be so violently assaulted, and no one ever is asking for it.
We meet Emma and her so-called ‘friends’ in the first half, hanging out, going to parties, and living their lives. Emma is known for her beauty and she prides herself on that, judging those around her by their looks. She’s a bully, and uncaring towards everyone including her friends, only interested in someone if they can give her an advantage in some way. She’s loved by her family, in some kind of way, but they too value her looks and how she compares to others – they think of her as a ‘good girl’, one who never drinks or does drugs or has sex.
When reading the scene leading up to the rape, I had to put this book down to take a breather. I would definitely recommend making sure you’re in the right frame of mind to take on this book and especially would advise taking breaks, because I personally could not take it in all in one go. The aftermath of the assault is even worse, but you join Emma a year afterwards. That is as much as I will say in terms of plot for this non-spoiler section.
It’s gutting, this piece of fiction, mainly because you know that although it’s fictional and set in a fictional town, this is happening to girls – and boys – every day. You know it’s based on real events, and as much as it sickens you, there are still people who think ‘she was asking for it’. Even today, you go on the comment sections to awful news stories about people getting raped, and you’ll have some people still saying that the rape victim is partly to blame, that they shouldn’t have been wearing such short skirts, that they shouldn’t have been drinking, that really they’re making themselves more vulnerable and ‘what do they expect to happen?’ And these people genuinely believe what they’re saying, as if the victim is at fault and is partly to blame. Because we live in a society where rape still isn’t as black and white as it should be. A woman gets mugged and the mugger is punished. A woman gets raped and she’s asked what she was wearing. One very poignant line that got to me in this book was the comment that the rapists are innocent until proven guilty, the victim guilty until proven innocent.
This book is so important, and should be read by everyone. Rape culture is something that needs to be addressed more, especially in how we present it. We should be telling people not to rape and punishing them if they do, not telling people how not to get raped. When you look at the most typical rape cases, the victim is normally wearing something that isn’t revealing, and often it’s by someone that they know. It baffles me that we’re still trying to change these ideas people have about rape. This book, I hope, will help to change that.
One thing this book does is let you see Emma go back to school for the next days after the rape, and then we lose all contact until a year later to see the aftermath. We’re not with her for the suicide attempts, we’re not with her for the abuse she gets, we’re not with her when she starts going to therapy, we’re not with her when her parents abandon her in almost every way – so when we finally do get back, it feels like there is no hope. It feels like, for a reader, there is literally nothing to be done. All we know is that Emma, in an effort to try and make it all ‘go away’, originally played it off as nothing and then only later agreed to say it was rape. You want to burst into this book and sit her down, much like her brother and therapist, and tell her that she is not at fault. Tell her that she is not the reason she was raped. Tell her that she should demand justice. Tell her to fight.
Yet I speak from a privileged background. I have a loving supportive network of friends and family, all who would stand by me and, most importantly, believe me if I told them I had been assaulted. It’s easy to say that I would fight for justice when I haven’t been assaulted, so it’s killing to watch someone – character or not – go through such agony only to fall. What makes it worse is that Emma recognises that when she was unconscious, those four boys assaulting her was rape, but before – when she has sex with Paul and is slightly drunk, when she doesn’t want to have sex and he ignores her – she doesn’t classify as rape.
The fact that her friend/rival Jamie was raped a year before the start of this book makes you feel even more inclined to dislike Emma. We know that Emma was the one to tell her not to say anything, and it’s almost, almost, understandable when Jamie turns on Emma.
The fact that this book ends with Emma telling her family that she wants to retract her statement, that she doesn’t want to go through with it, almost had me in tears. And when her mother and father smile at her afterwards, like they’re proud as if she won’t be the ‘raped girl’ anymore? Nearly destroyed me. Her own mother says the line ‘they’re good boys really. This all just got out of hand’.
This book is utterly heart-wrenching, gutting, soul-destroying, and at the same time exactly as it should be. You’ll find so many discussions about this book and the subject matter, and I for one would highly recommend listening to ‘The Banging Book Club’ podcast. They cover this book in their first episode, and it’s great to listen to other people discussing this challenging book.