Published: September 2015 by Quercus UK
Genre: Young Adult, Realistic Fiction, Contemporary
Rating: ♥ ♥ ♥ ♥
I read O’Neill’s debut Only Ever Yours (review here) last year and liked it so I was looking forward to more material from the author. I also tend to prefer contemporary fiction to dystopia, the genre of Only Ever Yours, so this looked very promising.
Asking For It follows Emma O’Donovan, a confident and gorgeous eighteen-year-old, who is gang-raped at a party by a group of boys who play on the school football team. Emma wakes up the morning after with no recollection of the previous night until she becomes the school pariah and she finally comes across the evidence of what happened to her that night of the party. As the explicit photos circulate wider and wider, Emma finds herself up against the town’s heroes and their supporters who paint her as the girl who was “asking for it”.
The setting of the story is a small town in Ireland where the local football stars are worshiped as heroes who can do no wrong. It was interesting to see the reactions of the various characters play out, from family and close friends to people in positions of authority, and how everyone seemed to have an opinion on the rape – whether it was if Emma was dealing with the incident “correctly” or who was to blame. One thing I really liked though was the focus throughout the novel on Emma and her immediate surroundings, her experience as she tries to reclaim her life. Oftentimes, stories such as this one can get diluted with focus on the perpetrators which can take over the narrative and turn stories like this one into a victim’s story vs. perpetrator’s story. Thankfully Asking For It steered well clear of this. O’Neill also brought into sharp relief just how the adage of “innocent until proven guilty” is a luxury usually afforded to the rapists but the not the victim who was immediately branded as “asking for it”.
I went through a roller-coaster of emotions reading Asking For It thanks to O’Neill’s writing which has been described like a “scalpel” and that it most certainly is! There were two phrases that were repeated throughout the book and really drove home Emma’s horrific ordeal and ensured the reader was never able to dismiss what happened to Emma – similar to the photos and how Emma could not escape them in the novel.
At the beginning, I was not at all impressed by Emma and I initially could not relate to her. She was vapid, took her social status for granted and used it to hurt others, she was jealous of her friends’ wealth, stealing from them because she didn’t believe it was wrong. She was corrosive and unsympathetic to those outside her circle of friends as well as those within. But I think the whole point of the book was that you weren’t particularly meant to like Emma – it makes us acknowledge that empathy towards Emma’s/any victim of rape’s plight should not be based on how likable they are, how short their dress is, how much they’ve had to drink etc. It should be about the fact that they have been abused in the most horrific way and that rape is rape no matter who it happens to. And this goes back to the crux of the whole novel.
Following the aftermath, I went from not liking the character to feeling her despair. The guilt she felt and that was placed on her by all sections of society, from within her own family to news columnists across the country, was relentless and O’Neill masterfully makes the reader feel that anguish . The final emotion was heartbreak when I read the ending – I won’t go in to any great detail as I don’t want to spoil anyone but whilst I, like a number of other readers, felt it could’ve been different, I’m glad it wasn’t. O’Neill’s ending whilst perhaps not the most uplifting is incredibly realistic and honest. This book belongs to victims like Emma and the sad fact is that rarely do these stories have happy endings. The ending was true to many victims which is infinitely more important and I’m glad that O’Neill did their stories and courage justice.
The only issue I had with Asking For It was that the flow felt a little disjointed at times. Tenses and the characters speaking changed between one sentence and the next at odd times, and I found I had to re-read some entire paragraphs just to decipher it thus ruining the flow for me. This kind of writing style would make sense post-incident where the disjointed thoughts of the victim as a result of trauma could be illustrated but it was the case at the beginning too – the first couple of pages in fact.
Overall though, Asking For It is a brilliant contribution to the genre and is a hard-hitting and emotional read. It deals with a topic that is oft-overlooked and challenges the judgmental narrative around rape and consent. Definitely a must-read for all ages and genders in my opinion.