I’ve never actually been the recipient of a real punch to the gut, but how I felt when I finished reading Louise O’Neill’s Asking For It is how I imagine being whacked really hard in the stomach feels – you’re left momentarily breathless, shocked, unable to process for a minute, and then the hurt piles in.
Beautiful, confident, 18 years old, Emma O’Donovan’s life changes one night when she goes to a party. Waking up the next morning in front of her house, she doesn’t remember what happened or how she got there. Her first clue is when she turns up at school to find herself mocked and shunned, and the reasons why become clear when Emma discovers a Facebook page which show photos of her with some of her small town’s most popular boys. Emma’s memory, her friends, her family – all want to believe their own story, and what happened that night is only the start of Emma’s nightmare.
In Emma O’Neill has created a character who isn’t particularly likeable, but who I always felt for, and whose side I was always on, unhesitatingly. Emma is kind of selfish, she uses her beauty to her gain, she takes advantage of friends, she steals, and she gives extremely bad advice, so bad that it actually means someone gets away with a crime and one of her friends is hurt physically and emotionally. Yet Emma is unflinchingly real, a typical 18-year-old who thinks the world is hers for the taking, and who believes she’s destined for bigger and better things, and who acts as she does to fit a stereotype placed on her not just by her friends and the boys she knows, but also by her parents and her brother.
Asking For It is split in two – the first half is the events leading up to the attack on Emma, and the immediate aftermath, while the second half picks up months later as the trial of Emma’s attackers draws close. Both parts are filled with doom, with O’Neill creating tension and suspense even though you roughly know what is coming, at least in the first part of the book. The way O’Neill has set the book out means you get to know characters as they were before and after the attack on Emma, and see how hugely they change.
The assault – let’s call it what it is, rape – on Emma is brutal, but the aftermath is just as bad. Emma’s body was used and abused and damaged on one night. For the next year her mind, her reputation and who she is are worn down and destroyed. As she struggles to come to terms with what has happened to her, and as the people around her do the same, O’Neill addresses questions around consent and around how the law has not adapted to new media. Is it consent if the victim had sex with the attacker willingly before the attack? Is it consent if she’s drunk? If she took drugs of her own volition? If the victim can’t remember what happened, is damning photographic evidence enough to convict someone of a crime? Is protection for victims good enough? (By the way, no, no, no, in this case yes, no.)
With Asking For It O’Neill has succinctly and painfully addressed questions of consent, of reputation, of the way society fails victims of sexual assault, of interpretation, of the way social media has changed the nature of crime and of bullying. Asking For It is scarier than O’Neill’s horrifying and brilliant debut Only Ever Yours, because Asking For It doesn’t come cloaked in dystopia, it’s the real world, and what O’Neill has described isn’t just in the realms of possibility, it has really happened. This is an important book, one that is sharp, terrifyingly so. Everyone should read it.
•Asking For It is released in the UK on September 3, 2015.
How I got this book: From the publisher, Quercus. This did not affect my review.