Posted in Books, Feminism, Reviews, ya

Asking For It | Louise O’Neill

Chilling and upsetting – but a 100% must-read

A book by its concept


Imagine waking up the morning after a party with no memory of what happened. Imagine that everyone else knows but you. Imagine that social media serves as the only means to piece everything back together in horrifying detail. For Emma O’Donovan, eighteen years old, this is not something she can only imagine.

The worst part of reading this book is the knowledge that this not a concept conjured by the author – this is, in one form or another, a reality stretching across the world. The book was partially inspired by real-life cases and the following media reaction. It’s a result of speaking to victims, reading news stories and analysing wider attitudes towards rape.

A book by its cover

I actually have the US hardback edition because it happened to be cheaper on the Book Depository. It’s smaller than what I’m used to which, let’s be real, is always a plus when entering hardback-territory. It also looks like this when you take off the dust cover:
What is this beauty? I’m sure we don’t get anything like that over here!

Anyway, the cover design itself (this time by Kate Gaughran) is one of my favourites. It’s striking and unnerving, leaving no doubts over the book’s themes. The bold text over the bare doll’s legs posed at exactly the right angle with the plain blue background… It’s as much of a work of art as the story inside.30965521

So, please can someone explain what this is about? It’s the new paperback cover and, well… let’s just say I’m not a big fan of generic black-and-white crying girl. I was happily awaiting the paperback release – there’s been a trend of paperbacks twisting the design of their hardback originals into something oh-so-wonderful – and I was approximately 0% impressed. Where is the clever imagery or the colour popping off the shelf? The new cover is dull. There, I said it.

The worst part is that a similar edition for O’Neill’s first book, Only Ever Yours, is popping up, suggesting this will be the style from now on. The original covers complement each other wonderfully – the doll imagery, the plain backgrounds and all all-capitals titles. I really hope O’Neill’s next book follows this pattern (but I have low optimism).

A book by its content

I would recommend a small amount of emotional preparation before entering this one. It feels very upsettingly real and the problem with real life is that fairy tale happy endings are had to come by. But this is precisely the reason the book succeeds: it’s a story that resonates reality. Lines of dialogue or narrative sting close to what readers may have heard themselves, regardless of whether someone has been through what Emma has.

“What’s wrong with what I’m wearing?”

“I don’t know, Em.” Bryan takes a gulp from his water bottle. “It’s a bit slutty, isn’t it?”

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

“That’s different.”

Other moments capture double standards or perceptions of the ‘perfect victim’ – and, most importantly, their very real impact on someone’s life.

“They are all innocent until proven guilty. But not me. I am a liar until I am proven honest.”

The character who I found most memorable was Emma’s older brother, Bryan, who spends large portions of the book away at university. His reaction to what happened to Emma is similar to what I’d imagine from myself. He is passionate and protective, the driving force of the police investigation; he is ultimately right but rarely acknowledged. He comes at a contrast to their parents who choose to ignore everything, her mother turning to alcohol while her father pretends life is as it was. Bryan’s reaction is, unfortunately, not what Emma needs. He’s better than her parents, but the point is made nonetheless: the legal process can be just as traumatic as the incident itself and, for Emma and others like her, it’s the last thing the victim needs for recovery.

The structure of Asking For It reminded of John Green’s Looking For Alaska: it’s a life now divided by one moment, the “last year” and “this year” or the “before” and “after” respectively. The two sections mean the build up to the moment and its consequences are developed equally. For Asking For It, this shows the problems existing before the party scene and how they may facilitate the problems of the second half. It also shows the contrast between her life before and after: her friendships struggle and collapse, her education takes a standstill. Emma’s life is left frozen and not simply just when the story comes to a close.

A book by its writing

Louise O’Neill’s writing is faultless. It is clear every line comes from a place of consideration and research. This results in the tone of authenticity that is so essential to a book of this nature. After reading, you can dip back into pages at random to find something quotable.

The best aspect of the writing is the repeated phrases that thread together the second half. For example, Emma is fixated on the images of the ‘pink flesh’ in the photos and the comments underneath them, recalling them frequently but quietly in brackets; she only describes what happened as ‘that word’. Emotions are lifted off the page, clever writing complementing the important story.

A book by its impact

As a novel, the message and themes in Asking For It reach a wide and varied audience that an essay or opinion piece would not be capable of. Stories like this are one way of beginning to solve the issues and problems laid out in Asking For It. Encouraging readers to think critically when they experience something echoing the book’s events could start to reverse the very thing that is keeping them in place.

More immediately, Louise O’Neill has written that readers say her book has made them see the world differently or it has helped them to dismantle their own victim-blaming directed at themselves.

For now, books can only do so much, but maybe O’Neill has started a ripple that will only grow.

Overall: 5 very deserving stars


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