Asking for it by Louise O’Neill

indexShortlisted for the 2016 YA Book Prize

Warning! This book contains distressing, graphic scenes and is not suitable for younger readers.

Eighteen-year-old Emma is beautiful, popular, happy, confident – and doesn’t she know it. She knows how to play her friends, her school mates and the boys who can’t take their eyes off her. When she wakes up one morning on her front porch, filthy and sunburnt and in pain, she has no idea how she’s got there, not until the photos of the night before start to circulate. It’s perfectly clear from those pictures that Emma has been the victim of a gang-rape, but no one’s treating her like a victim. Everyone seems to think she was ‘asking for it’ – including Emma herself.

I am at a loss as to how to pass judgement on this book. It is certainly very well written. The summer heat fills the first half of the book, the impatience, the judginess of the characters. The banter and Emma’s interior life seem authentic, even engaging in places. Louise O’Neill presents Emma’s situation in a way that is unsettling and upsetting and thought-provoking. I did get a little lost in all the characters, and in particular found it difficult to differentiate Emma’s friends.

Unfortunately, for me, Emma was so unlikeable that I found it difficult to sympathise with her. I’m sitting here telling myself that was the point, that her selfishness, her nastiness in her dealings with her close friends, her point-scoring attitude to sex make her fall into victimhood tragic. But it didn’t work for me. I needed Emma to have some redeeming feature, and I needed something to come at the end that would show her a way out. (I felt similarly about Louise O’Neill’s first book, Only Ever Yours.)

I’d like to think, as Louise O’Neill says in her afterword, that a book like this would add to the debate about non-consensual sex and slut-shaming and the distribution of photos of people in compromising situations. But, to be honest, most people who are going to read this would already agree that such things are abhorrent. Wouldn’t they? Who is going to read it and be changed by it? I don’t think another Emma would behave any differently if she had read the book. And the perpetrators? Would they read it? I doubt it? If they did, would it change them? I don’t think so. Fear of the consequences would change their behaviour. But prosecution is always going to be a problem when a victim can’t remember and changes her story and is afraid and ashamed and blames herself.

The point, of course, is not whether Emma’s behaviour or the perpetrators’ behaviour would be changed by the debate, but whether looking at the story, laid bare in this way, would lead people to see that no, of course, she wasn’t asking for it. No one would ask to be abused in this way. And that is the thing that women and men who have suffered such abuse need to be helped to realise and the thing that abusers and observers need to accept.

I’m not going to give Asking For It a piranha rating because I can’t say I enjoyed it at all. Perhaps it is important. Perhaps it will stimulate debate about shame and rape and consent. I rather wish it wasn’t in my head though.

Claire Watts

More to Read!

In the lead-up to the 2016 YA Book Prize, we’re reviewing all the books on the shortlist. Visit us every week for a new review.

Claire Watts writes and edits fiction and non-fiction for children and young adults. Her latest YA novel is How Do You Say GOOSEBERRY in French? You can read the first chapter here.

There’s a giveaway for Claire’s book running until June 1st 2016 over on Goodreads. Click here to enter.

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