Reviewed by Annabel
O’Neill’s first novel, Only Ever Yours, published in 2014, won a host of prizes in her native Ireland. Aimed at older teenagers upwards, it was a futuristic take on society in which females are bred for mens’ pleasure, their fate being sealed mostly on their looks at sixteen, but also on how they interact with the young men. As many have said, you can pitch it as a cross between Atwood’s Handmaid’s Tale with Mean Girls via Ira Levin’s Stepford Wives. This book marked O’Neill as one to watch. Could her second novel possibly be as good?
Asking For It by contrast is set firmly in the here and now in Ireland; it’s summer time in Ballinatoom and the weather is hot and sultry. Emma O’Donavan has just turned eighteen, she’s pretty and she knows it. As the novel starts, her mother is just getting her up for breakfast before school.
Her fingers rest on my stomach. ‘Do you have your period?’ she says. ‘You look a little bloated.’
I push her hand off me. ‘You don’t need to worry, Mam. I’m not pregnant.’
Everyone tells Emma she’s beautiful, including her parents, although her relationship with her mum can be prickly. Her best friends, Mags, Ali and Jamie tend to bring her back down to earth, but it doesn’t stop Emma playing out her arrival at school in her head:
I imagine them whispering to themselves once I’m out of earshot about how nice I am, how genuine, how I always seem to have time for everybody, how it’s amazing that I can still be so down to earth when I look the way I do.
This group of new eighteen year olds have all the obsessions of teenagers that you’d expect. From boys to make-up, sex and shopping, all discussed with a fair sprinkling of petty rivalries, cussing and text messages.
‘Anyway, back to the story,’ Ali says. She hates it when we interrupt her like this. ‘The hacker sent this girl the video of herself and told her if she didn’t, I don’t know, give him a blow job or something, he’d post the video on Twitter and send a link to everyone at her school. So she killed herself.’
They’re aware of internet shaming, they’re aware of girls who disappear for a while who go to London for an abortion. But, they like to get fairly wasted at parties and it appears that most of them are no longer virgins, and boy, can they be bitchy, especially Emma.
Few of these teenagers are in a relationship, most have been through break-ups, most have their eye on someone. Conor only has eyes for Emma, but she treats him like a brother. Emma fancies Jack, but he seems to be one of the few who doesn’t notice her. And so it goes on. The gossip mill is always in the background analysing everyone’s antics. But they never believe it’ll happen to them…
One hot summer night there’s a big party after the match. Everyone will be there. Emma’s parents are away for the night and her elder brother Bryan is in charge of her. She’s persuaded him to let her go to the party:
‘You’re not wearing that, are you?’ he says.
I smooth down my new dress. It’s black, cut down to the navel, and very, very short. ‘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?’
The morning after the night before Emma wakes up on her doorstep, not knowing how she got there, not knowing what happened at the party, not knowing why it hurts. When pictures appear on social media, everyone calls her a slut, they say she was asking for it, but should she believe what they say?
I wept for Emma, unlikeable as she was. Her life changed in that moment and she certainly didn’t deserve what happened to her that night, or thereafter. The second half of the novel follows the fall-out from the event as it affects everyone touched by it, and then gets amplified by the media as a discussion case.
O’Neill bravely explores many taboo areas that few authors would dare to go near. Sexual consent and shaming on social media may be the headline issues, but the deleterious effects on the mental health of Emma and her family isn’t far behind.
We see everything from Emma’s perspective though, and through her, O’Neill speaks directly to her older teenaged readers. It is made horribly clear what being raped could be like and O’Neill talked to many rape victims in writing this book – it must have been so difficult to write. She manages to get into Emma’s mind brilliantly.
As the mother of a teenaged daughter, it was a difficult book for me to read too. O’Neill takes her time to build up the picture of normal life for Emma and her friends before the real shocks start to come. One of the biggest of all is how it ends, which is a controversial piece of writing. Given everything that happens in this novel, you can’t hope for a conventional happy ending. Like Jodie Foster’s character in The Accused, you might expect a good day in court, but O’Neill does something braver than that.
This novel is an important one. Although 16+ girls may be its primary audience, it deserves a far wider audience, especially parents of girls. This book raises the bar for YA novels.
Annabel is one of the editors of Shiny New Books
Louise O’Neill, Asking For It (Quercus, 2015). 9781784295868, 346 pp., hardback.
BUY Asking for it from the Book Depository.