Louise O’Neill: Asking For It (2015)

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

What a book! I finished it a while ago but I’m still stunned. Sometimes you read a book and the topic shocks you. Then you read a book and the topic and your reaction shock you. This is what happened when I read Louise O’Neill’s brilliant novel Asking For It.

Asking For It is set in a small Irish town where everyone knows everyone. Eighteen-year-old Emma O’Donovan is the local beauty and most popular girl. There’s hardly a boy who can resist her and many girls want to be her friend. She loves to party, drinks, takes drugs and hooks up with random boys. You could say she’s pretty wild. One evening, like so often, she does drugs and has casual sex with a guy and then things get out of hands. The next afternoon, her parents find her asleep on the verandah with a serious sunburn and no idea what happened before and after she passed out. She’ll find out soon enough. Because someone filmed it and posted it on Facebook. Now she’s not popular anymore, she’s just a slut.

Emma’s first reaction is to suck it up and forget all about it but people tell her she has to report what happened as rape. From the moment, the word is said and charges are made, things go even further downhill for Emma. The ending was a real shocker but realistic.

It’s a sad and sobering story and the way it is told is so powerful and eye-opening because of Louise O’Neill’s choice of main protagonist. If Emma was just a beautiful, wild girl, it wouldn’t have had such an impact on me. I would have felt sorry for her and sided with her but Emma isn’t a likable character. On the contrary. She’s possibly the most obnoxious character I’ve ever come across. She’s narcissistic and has to be the center of attention all the time. She loves to steal other girls’ boyfriends or seduce the boys they fancy. She’s also jealous and downright nasty, mean, and offensive. Since she’s the first person narrator we get to know her very well. She’s a real piece of work.

At first I didn’t understand O’Neill’s choice of character but when I noticed my reaction, I got it. I’m ashamed to admit but my first thought was – she really had it coming. That gave me pause and I had to ask myself “seriously – because she’s unlikable she deserved what happened?” and that’s when I had to say – no, of course not. Nobody deserves something like this. And nobody is asking for it. And that’s when I began to admire Louise O’Neill’s choice because it shows what an explosive topic this is. What horrible reactions victims might have to face. It’s easy to feel empathy with a likable girl – wild or quiet – but obnoxious girls like Emma deserve understanding and support as well. Emma is a 21st century girl. In some ways she’s maybe an exaggeration, but in many other ways she’s not. Many teenage girls drink, party, do drugs, and have casual sex but that doesn’t mean they are asking for being abused and raped. And they certainly don’t deserve it.

Asking For It looks at important aspects of the discussion around rape. Just because a girl/boy, woman/man was drunk or unconscious that doesn’t mean it’s not rape. Dressing in a provocative way, doesn’t mean someone wants to be touched  . . . It’s appalling that these things still need to be said. The idea that they are punished for behaving the wrong way is so deep-rooted that some women don’t even dare calling what happened to them rape. The book also shows how easily society turns against the victim.

Asking For It is powerful. The writing is strong and tight. Emma’s voice is so distinct, I could still hear her after I finished the book. The bragging Emma and the one that was shamed and humiliated. Sadly, Asking For It is an important book. We need books like this. They raise awareness, offer food for thought and topics for discussions. Documentaries like The Hunting Ground show all too well how real “rape culture” is.

The review is my first contribution to  Cathy’s and Raging Fluff’s Reading Ireland Month

41 thoughts on “Louise O’Neill: Asking For It (2015)

  1. Sounds like it fits in very well with Little Deaths, where the woman is also on trial for being an unfit mother and having a promiscuous lifestyle, rather than for the actual murder of her children. I’ve had this for far too long on my e-reader, I really need to get to read it soon.

    • I’ve only just started Little Deaths but already see how she was scrutinised for her behaviour.
      What made this one so compelling is that she goes one stepf further in creating a mean unlikable character.
      I’d be interested to hear what you think.

  2. Sounds like a really powerful book, Caroline, especially the way it challenges your presumptions about people – and a clever way to do it. We shouldn’t have to be having this kind of dialogue nowadays but sadly we are – we still have idiotic judges and the like implying we all have to behave like nuns to avoid being assaulted.

    • I’m not very judgemental and so I was surprised that I still thought such unkind thoughts just because she’s such a vain, mean person.
      I agree, we shouldn’t have to talk about this but we have to and it’s not even getting better. Also the way social media play into this. And the idea “boys will be boys” and girls need to behave. Disgusting. It’s very powerful.

  3. I like the way you analysed the book. It is difficult to read a book with an unlikeable character. I would have thought the same as you – she had it coming. I think the author purposely chose the protagonist in this way to make the reader think

    • You’re welcome.
      I only found out it wasn’t her first book while reading it. It explains why the writing is so assured and, maybe, why she was willing to take some risks.

  4. Sadly this story sounds very realistic.

    Your description of the main character makes it sounds even more interesting. Folks often do tend to look at the wrong things when assessing the circumstances around rape. Books like this are important as they sometimes force folks to think about these uncomfortable realities.

    Great commentary on this book Caroline.

    • Thanks, Brian.
      It is sad that it’s so realistic. The ending too. I found it very disturbing to see how things went. I know women who were raped and din’t report it and very often because they blamed themselves. I think the book is just as important for victims as it is for everyone else. The reasoning of those who defend the perpetrators in the book were realistic and unsettling.

  5. Goodness, this does sound horribly realistic and arresting. Powerful stuff. I noticed you tagged your post with ‘YA novel’ – what age group would you consider it suitable for? I’m thinking of my goddaughters here, one of whom is a teacher.

  6. I’ve been meaning to read this one for ages, but have yet to get around to it. It got a lot of very positive coverage here in Ireland, and it was mentioned everywhere for a while. I tend to avoid such high profile books as I always worry that I’ll judge it based on hype rather than on the book itself.

    • I know what you mean. I’d be so interested to hear what you think of it though. I thought it was very well done. I’ve not come across many reviews so far.

  7. Oh, that is a surprise. This sounds like a tough read, but worth doing.

    We had an awful case of sexual assault over here last year by a Stanford University student. Two Swedish students found him assaulting an unconscious woman and held him down until the police arrived. There was tremendous outcry when he received only 3 months in prison. Plus his dad called it “twenty minutes of action.” I thought we were beyond that by now.

    • Three months! Appalling. A joke. I don’t know if you saw the documentary The Hunting Ground. Stanford seems pretty bad and the victims face more repercussions than the perpetrators.
      I fully understand women who don’t even both reporting it. I think it’s a shame that they can’t/won’t do it and it’s important to report it but the humiliation . . .
      I feel like it’s even worse nowadays.

  8. I’d not heard of this book before but it sounds harrowing and thought-provoking. I enjoyed reading your review and I would have had similar thoughts, probably. What a genius way to get the reader to probe her own feelings more carefully by using an unlikeable character in that situation.

    • Thanks, Laila. It’s good to know I’m not the only one. I felt so bad when I thought more about my reaction. It really is harrowing and made me think a lot.

  9. This sounds like a difficult read, but I’m drawn to stories with unlikable characters because they make me uncomfortable. Saying that, they also make me think. People are incredibly complicated and being about to write about them in a convincing way is a gift.

      • That’s pretty much what I was going to say, how much I appreciate the stimulation of a set of characters (or a single voice) who really challenge one’s thinking based on your response to them/her/him. The first writer whose books I remember noticing this in was Barbara Gowdy, who has a real knack for forcing a degree of compassion for people who are often exhibiting truly appalling behaviour(s).

        • Louise O?Neill is defintely very good at this. I’ve not read anything by Barbara Gowdy so far. I was afraid her elephant book would be too sad for me. I’m glad to hear she’s so good at conveying those conflicting emotions/motivations.

  10. Caroline, the book is new to me but your reaction and subsequent analysis makes me feel like reading this up. I like books which make us question our own assumptions and certainties. Excellent review.

    • Thank you, neer.
      It definitely made me question my own point of view.
      And there are many other aspects I couldn’t write about because I didn’t want to spoil it too much.
      I’d love to know what you think of it.

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  12. This was such a powerful book to read on so many levels. As the mother of a teenaged daughter that was just one of them!

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