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

My Plans For Reading Ireland Month

reading-ireland

Last year, I missed Cathy’s Reading Ireland Month and so I was glad to see that she and Raging Fluff would host it again in March.

Since I try to read from my piles, I went through my book shelves in search of Irish writers. I found much more Irish books than I thought I would and now I’m spoilt for choice.

Here are a few of the books that I might read, in no particular order:

 

the-house-in-paris

Elizabeth Bowen The House in Paris

When eleven-year-old Henrietta arrives at the Fishers’ residence in Paris, little does she know what fascinating secrets the house itself contains. Henrietta finds that her visit coincides with that of Leopold, an intense child who has come to Paris to be introduced to the mother he has never known. In the course of a single day, the mystery surrounding Leopold, his parents, Henrietta’s agitated hostess and the dying matriarch in bed upstairs, come to light slowly and tantalisingly.

louise-oneill

Louise O’Neill Asking For It

A soul-shattering novel that will leave your emotions raw. This story will haunt me forever. Everyone should read it’ Guardian

In a small town where everyone knows everyone, Emma O’Donovan is different. She is the special one – beautiful, popular, powerful. And she works hard to keep it that way.

Until that night . . .

Now, she’s an embarrassment. Now, she’s just a slut. Now, she is nothing.

And those pictures – those pictures that everyone has seen – mean she can never forget.

time-after-time

Molly Keane Time After Time

Durraghglass is a beautiful mansion in Southern Ireland, now crumbling in neglect. The time is the present – a present that churns with the bizarre passions of its owners’ past. The Swifts – three sisters of marked eccentricity, defiantly christened April, May and Baby June, and their only brother, one-eyed Jasper – have little in common, save vivid memories of darling Mummy, and a long lost youth peculiarly prone to acts of treachery.

Into their world comes Cousin Leda from Vienna, a visitor from the past, blind but beguiling – a thrilling guest. But within days, the lifestyle of the Swifts has been dramatically overturned – and desires, dormant for so long, flame fierce and bright as ever.

two-moons

Jennifer Johnston Two Moons

In a house overlooking Dublin Bay, Mimi and her daughter Grace are disturbed by the unexpected arrival of Grace’s daughter Polly, and her striking new boyfriend. The events of the next few days will lead both of them to reassess the shape of their lives. For while Grace’s visitors focus her attention on an uncertain future, Mimi, who receives a messenger of a very different kind, must begin to set herself to rights with the betrayals and disappointments of the past.

time-present-and-time-past

Deirdre Madden Time Present and Time Past

When Fintan Buckley develops an interest in old autochrome photographs, strange things start to happen. To all appearances, Fintan holds down a successful job and enjoys life with his conventional middle-class family in Dublin, yet inwardly he starts to experience states of altered consciousness, with unsettling hallucinations and sudden insights. Meanwhile, Fintan’s sister Marina has been unearthing family stories from the past and the two of them, in different ways, find themselves renegotiating their history and the decisions that have brought them to this place, this present.

city-of-bohane

Kevin Barry City of Bohane

The once-great city of Bohane on the west coast of Ireland is on its knees, infested by vice and split along tribal lines. There are still some posh parts of town, but it is in the slums and backstreets of Smoketown, the tower blocks of the Northside Rises and the eerie bogs of Big Nothin’ that the city really lives.

For years, Bohane has been in the cool grip of Logan Hartnett, the dapper godfather of the Hartnett Fancy gang. But there’s trouble in the air. But now they say his old nemesis is back in town; his trusted henchmen are getting ambitious; and there’s trouble in the air…

lonely-passion-of-judith-hearne

Brian Moore The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne

A timeless classic dealing with the complexity and hardships of relationships, addiction and faith.

Judith Hearne, a Catholic middle-aged spinster, moves into yet another bed-sit in Belfast. A socially isolated woman of modest means, she teaches piano to a handful of students to pass the day. Her only social activity is tea with the O’Neill family, who secretly dread her weekly visits.

Judith soon meets wealthy James Madden and fantasises about marrying this lively, debonair man. But Madden sees her in an entirely different light, as a potential investor in a business proposal. On realising that her feelings are not reciprocated, she turns to an old addiction – alcohol. Having confessed her problems to an indifferent priest, she soon loses her faith and binges further. She wonders what place there is for her in a world that so values family ties and faith, both of which she is without.

And one crime novel

in-the-woods

Tana French In the Woods

When he was twelve years old, Adam Ryan went playing in the woods with his two best friends. He never saw them again. Their bodies were never found, and Adam himself was discovered with his back pressed against an oak tree and his shoes filled with blood. He had no memory of what had happened.

Twenty years on, Rob Ryan – the child who came back – is a detective in the Dublin police force. He’s changed his name. No one knows about his past. Then a little girl’s body is found at the site of the old tragedy and Rob is drawn back into the mystery. Knowing that he would be thrown off the case if his past were revealed, Rob takes a fateful decision to keep quiet but hope that he might also solve the twenty-year-old mystery of the woods.

Have you read any of these? Which ones would you recommend?

Kate O’Brien: The Land of Spices (1941)

Land of Spice

Back in August, I participated in All Virago/All August, not taking it literally, which means that I didn’t dedicate the whole month to reading only Viragos. I made a small list and read a few books but there were still some more left. One of those was Kate O’Brien’s The Land of Spices.

The Land of Spices tells the story of Sister Marie-Hélène, the Reverend Mother of a French order located in Ireland, and a young Irish girl, Anna Murphy. When the book opens, little Anna, who is only six years old, has just joined the convent, which is also a boarding school for rich girls. She is the youngest child who has ever been accepted and Mère Marie-Hélène whom everyone calls “cold” is surprised that she reacts so strongly to this little girl. Not only does she feel she has to protect the girl, but she also feels some a kinship. This kinship triggers memories of her own childhood when she too joined the convent as a boarder. Back then, she lived in Brussels with her parents, although they were English.

Since her childhood she always felt much closer to her father and when her mother died, when she was only twelve, they grew even closer. But something happened. Something that made Marie-Hélène not only become a nun but flee her father. While this isn’t something she has repressed, she has repressed the memory of a wonderful childhood and the relationship with her father which once meant the world to her.

All through the book, there are allusions to what happened and I was a bit afraid, we wouldn’t find out what it was. I actually feared that it was something quite different and once the truth is revealed I was relieved. However, at the time when this is set, before WWI, Marie-Hélène’s discovery would have come as a shock. Let’s leave it at that or I’ll spoil the book.

The presence of Anna and the strong feelings she triggers, make Mère Marie-Hélène remember.

The book follows the lives of these two women until the day, when Anna graduates and Mère Marie-Hélène is finally granted her wish to go back to Brussels.

I didn’t expect to love this book as much as I did. It’s so subtle and rich and the depiction of convent life is detailed and intriguing. Kate O’Brien captures both, the sister’s religious life and their “human” lives. Many of these sisters are less than holy but selfish, jealous and unjust. There is even a scene reminiscent of Jane Eyre. Only mother Marie-Hélène who people call “cold” is never unfair or unjust. Marie-Hélène is a fascinating character. Intelligent, introspective, fond of poetry. Through her eyes we discover the more contemplative side of her life at the convent. It’s important to say, that this isn’t a contemplative order. The sisters here are similar to those in Call the Midwife. Only they aren’t midwives but many teach in the convent school.

The descriptions of life at the convent were fascinating and because Kate O’Brien is so good at capturing people’s follies and foibles, this is also a very funny book. There’s a chapter dedicated to a concert that made me laugh so much. I can honestly not remember having read anything this funny in a long time. It reminded me of similar moments in my childhood, when people who were a little too full of themselves made total fools out of themselves and you had to pretend what they were doing was great and try not to laugh. The whole chapter dedicated to this concert is a tour de force of witty characterisation.

While it had funny aspects, it’s not a humorous novel per se. It’s the story of a very unusual life. A life that could have gone a very different way, especially since Marie-Hélène initially didn’t join the convent for religious reasons. Nonetheless, she makes the most of her career choice, strives for goodness and fights hard for her faith.

The foreword points out that this is also a rare study of a world in which the hierarchy is almost purely female. Yes, there are priests and bishops visiting, but those in charge in the convent are women. And the successor of the Mere Générale, the head of the order, will be named by a woman.

Since the main protagonist is English and the book is set just before WWI, Home Rule and the Irish’s fight for independence are very important topics.

The Reverend mother often thinks she’s an outsider because she is English, but the novel shows us that she might just be one of those people who will always be outsiders. She’s too easily wounded and that’s why she’s built a wall around herself nobody can break through.

When the book was published in 1941, it caused a bit of stir as there was a scene that was considered risqué. It’s not risqué at all because all it says is that the narrator saw someone in an embrace. Nonetheless, Kate O’Brien had a hard time getting other books published and this one was condemned by the Censorship Board. Possibly however, as the foreword says, this was far less because of the sexual allusion but because she poked fun at convent hierarchy and criticized the sisters, depicting them in a very realistic, not exactly saintly way.

As I said before, I loved this book. I found the atmosphere soothing, the characters so well described and it had one of the funniest scenes I read in a while.

 

 

Colm Tóibín: Brooklyn (2009)

Brooklyn

I can’t understand why I haven’t read Colm Tóibín before. He’s outstanding. I admire his writing, his luminous prose. It’s not easy to say why it is so great but it is. His descriptions, the details he chooses, the settings, are so precise and conjure up a whole world.

It’s the 1950s and Ellis Lacey is living in Ireland with her mother and older sister. She wants to be an accountant but is only a shop assistant. Thanks to her sister, she can emigrate to America where she’s hired in a shop, goes to an accounting school and betters herself. Here, she meets a young Italian man and begins a relationship with him. After tragedy strikes, she has to decide whether she will stay in America or go back to Ireland. The novel has four parts. The first is set in Ireland and on the ship crossing over to America, the second and third are set in Brooklyn, the last in Ireland.

Ellis is a passive character but interesting as she’s introspective and a keen observer of what happens around her and inside of herself. I loved reading about the way she processed things that had happened to her during the day. In the beginning this passivity isn’t exactly attractive but it’s not as infuriating as it is in the last part. Ellis never speaks up, never fights for herself and in the end, she pays a high price for this behaviour. One aspect that stood out for me was the way Tóibín wrote about the experience of being an immigrant. I’ve lived abroad a few times, in some cases in places where I knew hardly anyone. Many of the feelings described, brought those experiences back.

Here’s a quote showing Ellis in the shop she’s working in Brooklyn.

The morning was full of frenzy; she did not for one moment have peace to look around her. Everyone’s voice was loud, and there were times when she thought in a flash of an early evening in October walking with her mother down by the prom in Enniscorthy, the Slaney River, glassy and full, and the smell of leaves burning from somewhere close by, and the daylight going slowly and gently. This scene kept coming to her as she filled the bag with notes and coins and women of all types approached her asking where certain items of clothing could be found or if they could return what they had bought in exchange for other merchandise, or simply wishing to purchase what they had in their hands.

Ellis may be the main character but there are numerous other characters, some who only appear briefly. They are all complex and rich in facets. One could also say that the two main settings, the eponymous Brooklyn and Ireland are treated like characters. They are described in detail, juxtaposed, compared, contrasted. Two very distinct worlds come alive between these pages.

I highly recommend Brooklyn. It’s beautiful and I can’t wait to read more of Tóibín. Just be warned – Ellis can, at times, be an infuriating character.

If you’d like to read a more in-depth review here’s Max’s take on the novel.

Christine Dwyer Hickey: The Lives of Women (2015)

The Lives of Women

Christine Dwyer Hickey is an Irish novelist and short story writer, who has been awarded many prizes for her work. Her bestselling novel Tatty was chosen as one of the 50 Irish Books of the Decade, long listed for the Orange Prize and shortlisted for the Hughes & Hughes Irish Novel of the Year Award. Last Train from Liguria, was nominated for the Prix L’Européen de Littérature. Her novel The Cold Eye of Heaven won Irish Novel of the Year 2012 and was nominated for the IMPAC 2013 award.

The Lives of Women, her latest novel, is set in an Irish suburb. There are two timelines, one set in the 70s, the other thirty years later, in contemporary Ireland. The chapters set in the present are written in first person. The chapters set in the 70s, in the third. Since both strands are told by Elaine, it felt a bit weird at first, but after a few chapters it made perfect sense. It’s like the person she was in the past was someone else entirely.

I found it interesting that from the first pages on, I felt that Christine Dwyer Hickey was also a short story writer. The prose is so lean, every bit of fluff has been cut. Almost minimalist. I liked that very much and feel like picking up another of her novels. Unfortunately though, this book didn’t quite work for me because she uses a device we know from genre novels – withholding information – and in this case it felt gimmicky.

Elaine returns to Ireland from New York after a thirty year absence. Her mother has died and her father’s caretaker is absent, so she feels, she should come and help him. Early in the novel we’re told that she left Ireland at the age of 16 because of some traumatic event. We’re not told what it was until the final pages. While this technique made the novel suspenseful, I thought it diminished its power.

Apart from this clumsy structure the book has many strengths. Dwyer Hickey captures the claustrophobic feeling of an Irish suburb in the 70s. The women are at home, bored to death, the men just distant shadows. many of the women drink or pop pills. Elaine’s relationship with her mother is very unhealthy. They sleep in the same bed until Elaine is nine and only because a school friend tells other kids about it, does that change. Later, Elaine contracts a near fatal illness, which gives her mother the excuse to smother her. She may not be as extreme but she reminded me quite often of Jeanette Winterson’s mother.

When an American divorcee, Serena, and her daughter, Patty, move into the neighbourhood, tensions rise. We know from the beginning that this divorcee takes Elaine with her when she returns to New York after the tragedy has happened. The way Dwyer Hickey describes the culture clash is so well done. And when reading it and comparing the kind, free-spirited Serena with the frustrated, crazy housewives around her, we start to understand that Elaine might not only be traumatized by what happened but by her upbringing, the stifling atmosphere, the double standards and highly dysfunctional relationships, in which sex is everywhere but too tabu to be spoken about.

Unfortunately this withholding of information, the slow build-up to the final incident, made that incident much less tragic than it really was. And it also overshadowed one of the underlying themes, which I found extremely interesting and well-done. Elaine reinvents herself more than once in this book. She sheds identities like clothes. I liked the idea of a person being able to become someone else, to draw on hidden selves and bring them to light.

This isn’t the glowing review I would have liked to write, but that doesn’t mean I wasn’t glad I read it. If only because it introduced me to an author whose style really appealed to me.

Here’s a small sample of her writing, from the beginning of the novel:

I come down here to try to cure or maybe kill something, in a hair of the dog sort of way, but all I ever do is remember. Days of brooding then follow. Brooding on the past, on the horror of being young: on all the stupidity and ignorance and misplaced loyalty that goes with the territory. Then I start with the thinking. I think about what it was like to be living here at the time. I think about Karl and Paul, about Patty and Serena. About Jonathan. I think about all the others. About my mother and the other mothers. About my father and the other fathers and non-fathers alike. About the unimportance of children and the importance of men. I think about the lives of women.

I want to pick up Tatty next. Has anyone read Christine Dwyer Hickey’s books?

 

Donal Ryan: The Spinning Heart (2012)

The Spinning Heart

Irish writer Donal Ryan’s first book  The Spinning Heart is less a novel than a chorus. A chorus of 21 voices telling, stating, deploring, accusing and confessing things that are on their mind, things they want to commit or have committed, things they should have done or could have done. While each of them gives us a slice of individual life, in his or her unique voice, using their idiom or vernacular, they are linked because of the recession that has hit them hard. Most of the professional life in this small rural community was tied to the building firm of Pokey Burke who fled the country, leaving his former employees without pension or income. He’s also responsible for a ghost estate, in which one of the narrators, Réaltín, her little boy, and one elderly woman live. The other houses haven’t been finished and Réaltín’s house has a lot of shortcomings too.

The book opens with Bobby’s voice and closes with Triona, Bobby’s wife. In between are the 19 others. Former workers of Pokey, his father and many more. What struck me the most was that every chapter really sounded as if a person was talking to us. The voices are each so intimate and distinctive. Some focus on the present moment and the recession, some go way back. What we read paints an astounding portrait of Irish society, the things that have been the same for decades, like the weight of the Catholic Church, and those that have drastically changed, like the economy. Some voices are shocking, some are heartbreaking, some belong to very young children, some to old people, most to those who have been the most affected by the recession- people between 18 and 60+.

While all these lives have been marked by Pokey and his real estate fraud, there are also two thin plot lines which link all the people: the abduction of Réaltín’s boy and the murder of Bobby’s father. With these to plots the book transcends the economy theme and encompasses more universal topics like family and relationships.

The Spinning Heart is an amazing piece of writing and I’m not surprised Donal Ryan won the guardian First Book Award. Creating 21 distinctive voices is an achievement but to tell 21 touching life stories and to capture a whole country even more so.

Deirdre Madden: Molly Fox’s Birthday (2008)

Molly Fox's Birthday

It’s been a while since I’ve read a book by a new-to-me author and felt like reading everything she’s ever written. I have Guy to thank for the discovery of Irish writer Deirdre Madden. When he reviewed her novel Time Present and Time Past (here’s the link) I knew right away this would be a book I’d love to read. When I looked at her other novels Molly Fox’s Birthday tempted me even more.

Molly Fox’s Birthday is set in Dublin and tells about one day in the life of the narrator, a playwright and best friend of Molly Fox. Molly is a much-admired, famous theatre actress. She’s spending some time away from Ireland and she and her friend swap apartments. While the narrator stays in Dublin, Molly will be staying at her apartment in London.

The narrator has just started a new play and tries to overcome a severe case of writers’ block. Instead of writing, she spends the day thinking back on her life and her friendship with Molly and their mutual best friend Andrew. One little thing leads to another, one thought leads to the next. While not a lot happens during that day – the narrator goes shopping, Andrew drops in, a stranger rings the doorbell – we see the richness of a complex life unfold. A life that is as much rooted in Irish history as in the love for theater and acting. The different elements all lead to an in-depth exploration of many other themes: religion, friendship, family, acting, reality, dreams, authenticity.

I liked how she shows the world of the theater from different sides. The side of the playwright, the side of the actor, the view from a fan, and how she draws parallels. Her own brother is a priest and a lot of what he’s doing, when preaching, is acting as well. One strand of thoughts circles around how much any person acts and how much someone can ever know an actor. Until the end of the book, Molly stays an enigma. Just like she hates celebrating her birthday, she hates talking about her feelings and withdraws into her acting if someone comes too close. This doesn’t mean Molly doesn’t reveal herself. Her apartment which is carefully decorated allows a glimpse into her soul.

While the narrator thinks about this, we realize that one of the reasons why Molly, Andrew and the narrator are such close friends, is that they share this reservation. As rich and detailed as their inner lives are, they are not very explicit people and are interested in what is left unsaid, maybe more than in what is said. In the end, when someone like Molly decides to talk – it can always be to reveal something or to hide even more. She may always play a role. But that’s true of many people, only actors are much better at selling the idea of themselves they want others to buy.

It’s hard to do a book like this justice because it’s so complex and multi-layered. And because I loved it so much.

A few quotes may help to give you a better impression.

There are forms of communication that drive people apart, that do nothing other than confirm distance. But there are also instances when no connection seems to be made and yet something profound takes place, and this was just such a moment.

My hunger for the stage at that time was intense in a way I now find somewhat alarming. I watched plays with the kind of voracity with which small children read books; with the same visceral passion, the same complete trust in the imagination which is so difficult to sustain throughout the course of one’s whole life.

Here is one of Molly’s fans telling the narrator why the theater and someone like Molly who brings so much authenticity to the stage is important in her life.

You’re locked into this iron routine, cooking and shopping and cleaning, saying things to people and them saying things back to you, and none of it meaning anything, all of it pointless. Maybe it has to do with getting older, I don’t know, I feel like I’m sleepwalking through the years, but I want to wake up. Reality, you know? Why is it so hard to find? And why do so many people not seem to notice this? Why don’t hey care? Yes, I did go to see The Duchess, and all of this was very much on my mind that particular evening. I was worn down with it all, I felt stultified. And then the play – well, Molly Fox in particular, she was electrifying. All that dullness, that unreality I’m talking about, she blew a whole through it with language, with that voice of hers; i wa like an explosion going of in your soul.

Of course, since this book is the story of one day, set in Dublin, and one of the main protagonists is called Molly, we are reminded of Ulysses. I didn’t try to dig deeper, but the connection seems pretty obvious.

Molly Fox’s Birthday is a wonderful celebration of the interior life, art, theatre, friendship and it’s an exploration of how daily life, despite the struggles, doesn’t have to turn into something dull and devoid of authenticity. There’s always meaning, you just have to look for it.