Asking For It has recently won the Irish Book of the Year Award, and been hailed as a book that everyone, everywhere, ought to read. Upon reading this sharply drawn novel it is clear to see why.
Emma O’Donovan is 18 years old, young, beautiful, all too aware of how her looks affect those around her. The story is set in the small Irish town of Ballinatoom, where Emma and her friends spend most of their weekends going to the park after school, going to parties with the boys from the football team, and generally living their lives as normal teenagers. O’Neill deliberately paints Emma in a less-than-positive light; she is knowingly bitchy, obviously jealous and dabbles in petty theft (taking designer sunglasses from her friends, because “they can afford it.”) But she’s not a total nightmare – O’Neill stitches together a character who is undoubtedly layered; we see the hint of her own insecurities (she worries that she’s “hot but boring,” and she puts her own friends down in order to make herself feel better.
One Saturday night, Emma goes to a party that changes her life. Whilst there, she is offered Class A drugs by a member of the football team, drinks copious amounts of alcohol and wakes up the next morning alone on her front porch, blistering in the heat and without any underwear. Her parents find her. She cannot remember what happened.
This incident in itself is terrifying enough. O’Neill ramps up the tension as Emma continues her life for a few hours, wondering why the girls haven’t replied to her texts, worrying as to why her dress is back to front and why she’s in pain. But she isn’t panicking yet, she’s dismissing it all as a drunken night out, a hangover, no big deal. Most of us can identify with that part, at least.
But then there are the photographs. Emma finds out that she has been a victim of gang rape, but not only that, it has been documented for the world to see and uploaded to social media. Overnight, she becomes an outcast, forced to eat lunch in the school toilets, whispered at in the corridors. Her brother Bryan sees the photos, tells Emma that he’s “never been so ashamed.” The boys involved are on the football team, local heroes, men she considered to be her friends.
Flash forward to a year later. Emma is depressed, suicidal, living at home with a mother who is on the verge of alcoholism and a father who could be losing his job. She isn’t going to school or sitting her exams. She has chosen to prosecute the boys involved in the attack (which she still cannot remember) and the town is punishing her for it. She is “ruining their lives.” Her life has become a living nightmare.
O’Neill addresses so many important issues in this book – victim–blaming, consent, the court system, bullying, social media – it is one of the most relevant books of the moment and the points it makes are horrifying. One only needs to look at statistics to realise why it is that so few rape victims ever come forward, let alone prosecute, and O’Neill manages to create a tragically realistic take on how women are made to feel when the worst happens. Without revealing the ending of the book, I will say that it is saddening, slightly ambiguous and desperately unfair – and Emma’s story leaves the reader feeling raw. O’Neill is in complete control of the narrative at all times, there are no unnecessary plot lines or paragraphs, and the huge contrast between the Emma of part one and the Emma of part two really hammers the point home. O’Neill does not shy away from the torment Emma has to endure, nor the extent to which it affects her (“I am not falling apart. I am being ripped at the seams, my insides torn out until I am hollow.”) The character of her brother Bryan is particularly well done, as a sibling his own sadness and worry over Emma is heartbreaking. The ripples that spin out from Emma’s attack were for me the worst part of the novel, it affects each part of her life like a disease and the subsequent guilt that follows is hard to read (“My fault. My fault.”)
Asking For It is a critically important book that deserves to be passed from person to person, in order to let Emma’s story be heard the world over.