Bookish Review: Asking For It by Louise O’Neill

Asking For It by Louise O’Neill

Published: September 2015 by Quercus UK

Genre: Young Adult, Realistic Fiction, Contemporary

Rating: ♥ ♥ ♥ ♥

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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.

Bookish Review: Only Ever Yours by Louise O’Neill

Only Ever Yours by Louise O’Neill

Published: July 2015 by Quercus

Genre: Dystopian

Rating: ♥ ♥ ♥ ♥ ♡

Goodreads | Buy on Amazon

Only Ever Yours is author Louise O’Neill’s debut novel which makes it all the more impressive that it won the YA Book Prize this year. There’s been a lot of hype surrounding this book so I was looking forward to diving into this. First things first, I think this book is best enjoyed going into it with as little knowledge of the plot as possible. I’ve kept the review spoiler-free but do avoid if you’re planning on reading the book!

Only Ever Yours  is set in a speculative future where females are no longer conceived naturally. Instead girls (called eves) are “grown” and trained at the School to take on one of three role when they come of age: a Companion, the most desirable position as wives to wealthy and influential men, a Concubine, or a Chastity, women relegated to raising and instructing eves in their education. frieda and isabel have been best friends since they entered the School. However, the pressure of final year sees isabel going off the rails putting her beauty, and her #1 ranking, at risk. As the pool of potential husbands are introduced to the eves, frieda is forced to do what she can to survive – even if that means sacrificing her friendship with isabel in the process…

The book has been described as a cross between The Handmaid’s Tale and Mean Girls, but it was a really fresh and interesting take on feminist ideas and patriarchal society. O’Neill world-builds really effectively, the disturbing nature of the School and the society are in the details – the girls’ strict food intake, their room decor and their structured lives. I also adored O’Neill’s writing style. Her words and sentences are raw and unforgiving, and I was particularly drawn to her similes – some of which actually made me physically uncomfortable (hard to do!)

They must be dead now, those trees, like everything else. Rotted away, decaying like female babies in the uterus. Decomposing from the inside out.

The characters are simply put, unlikeable – they are vapid and spiteful towards one another and have little, to no, redeeming qualities but that is the whole point. They are a reflection of the depraved society they live in. The girls’ every day is punctuated by rankings and comparisons, which define their worth. The subliminal messaging they are constantly bombarded with whilst asleep and the not-so-subliminal messages of the Chastitys sermons are brutal and brainwashing. There is no let up and no loyalty, the brutality the eves show one another is exhausting but also, uncomfortably familiar too.

Fat girls should be made obsolete.

I wasn’t sold on frieda’s actions towards the end of the book. Whilst they demonstrated her desperation and complete lack of control over her fate, there were times when I wanted to shake her for making naive choices and silly mistakes. isabel is an intentionally distant character, her story is revealed rather slowly, but I would’ve liked to get to know her character a bit better, beyond the numerous flashbacks, especially as frieda worshipped her best friend throughout most of their childhood. There were also some fascinating concepts introduced by the author, such as “Underground” and “female aberrants”, left unexplored which was a shame. The sticking point for many reviewers seems to concern the ending. I must admit I wasn’t totally convinced by the wrap up – it seemed a bit rushed – but neither was I expecting a neatly tied bow, it’s just not that sort of book.

All in all, I was blown away by the sheer intensity of the topics explored in Only Ever Yours and O’Neill’s unflinching style. This is a difficult and uncomfortable read, but it’s supposed to be. O’Neill takes the worst of our society and cranks it up a couple of notches. The reader is forced to confront situations, that while not realistic (yet!), is not a total stretch of the imagination to believe. Definitely one not to miss!

If you’re looking for something similar, the Uglies series by Scott Westerfeld is a cult YA classic. Otherwise, The Handmaid’s Tale, by Margaret Atwood, which O’Neill drew inspiration from is a modern dystopian classic.

Have you read Only Ever Yours? What were your thoughts on the ending? Let me know in the comments below 🙂