Asking For It by Louise O’Neill

Emma O’Donovan has just turned eighteen. She is beautiful, conscious of behaving nicely, and popular because of it. She understands what is expected of her and what she has to gain from life with a body and face like hers.

Her beauty is the focus of her mother’s love as well as Emma’s own fantasies. In fact, the novel is more successful because Emma isn’t a particularly pleasant character. She is the bitch she tries so hard to suppress in public. Until [and this is where those who don’t want spoilers need to stop, though the novel isn’t about plot surprises but more about forcing the reader to confront difficult truths] one night she gets carried away trying to prove she is more than others imagine and passes out having drunk too much and taken too many unknown drugs.

The following day her parents find her collapsed on the lawn, sunburn streaked across a lot of exposed flesh. When she goes into school on the Monday her friends shun her and even the most unpopular kids don’t want to sit with her all because of what has appeared on Facebook, uncompromising images that haunt her, forcing her from eating lunch in the bathroom, through refusing to go in to school, to suicide attempts.

The novel jumps ahead a year and Emma has pressed charges of rape, a word she is deeply uncomfortable with. She has begun to feel that the rape charges are not only ruining her own life but everyone else’s too: her parents’ business prospects dwindle, they are shunned by old friends; her brother loses his girlfriend; the boys whose lives were about to take off into university or rugby teams are faced with a life of stigma. Emma feels guilty. Emma feels ashamed.

As you would expect from the title, the reader is forced to think about how a women could ever ask for rape. Issues surrounding beauty, clothing and behaviour are raised so that we must ask ourselves about consent and how it should be understood and valued.

I won’t say what happens in the end, but I will say that the ending is brief. I felt frustrated by it, not because of Emma’s decision (there is a different sense of frustration there, a frustration felt for the character rather than with the novel) but because we don’t get to see how that decision plays out in anyone’s life. I feel Louise O’Neill could have written more. I wanted to see how Emma would feel later in her life. What she would think of her parents, her friends and her own decisions. Whether she would learn to forgive herself and make peace with her body or whether her life would amount to nothing more than literally keeping the peace through maintaining a silent withdrawal.

Asking For It is painful to read because there is no way of escaping the ingrained misogyny that is very much a part of our modern world. A world in which parents expect different things of their sons and daughters, where women speak differently to men, where young girls are taught to value beauty over character and to see sex as a badge of popularity or conquest, a measure of self-worth, and as a tool for building success. Asking For It asks if our progressive technological society has regressed in its use of social media where constantly updated images displace us further and further from ourselves: we are what we appear to be. It is no surprise that Emma’s self-loathing is fueled by her loss of control over these social media images.

Asking For It is billed as a young adult novel, and I can see that it could be a useful, if harrowing, book for young people to read, but I think the novel has a wider scope and says something about the way we live that demands attention from an adult readership. Clever, punchy and painfully provocative, Asking For It is a novel that challenges the reader to think more deeply about the unspoken gender inequalities we tolerate in order to fit in.

Next week I’m reading Salt by Jeremy Page.