Eighteen year old, Emma O’Donovan, has it all. Looks, brains, a great group of friends and a great social life. All that change when she is found on her front doorstep, bruised and blistered, with no recollection of how she got there. She vaguely remembers a party, the previous night, and drinking copious amounts of booze, popping a pill and flirting her ass off. After that, it is blank. When she returns to school, the next day, it becomes very obvious that something big has happened. No one will talk to her, whispers and pointing fingers and everyone seems to know what happened at the party. When she discovers a facebook page, with photographs of her from that night, she begins to realise that her life has just collapsed. But was she asking for it?
I can honestly say that I have not read a book that affected me as much as this one did. I was so upset by the contents that my heart was pounding in anger, my hands ached from clenched fists and my heart broke a little more with each page. I had to take a break, halfway through, but read it within four hours. There was no way I could have put this away for another day.
Louise O’Neill has taken the concept of ‘consent’ and brought it to her fictional story, based on many real-life cases. Instead of setting the book in a big city, or with older characters, she has used the cusp of adulthood for her protagonist, Emma, and shown how a young woman, with a cocky, self assured exterior, can be an insecure child underneath it all. The eighteen year old has been complimented on her extraordinary beauty since she was a baby and has learned to use this to her advantage. Her stature and confidence means that she is the ‘it’ girl. Everyone wants to be her friend, her lover, just be near her. She gets away with a lot because of this; she can be a real bitch to her friends, uses people for her own gain and helps herself to what she believes she deserves. However, the minute she closes the door to her own home, she reverts to childlike behaviour, with her mother pressing her pressure points. She is constantly reminded by her mother of her need to maintain her poise and her beauty, while her father places her on a ‘Princess’ pedestal. She wants it all. Her whole life she has had it all. The party is another example of her need to be queen bee. She desires attention from men and women. She thinks the girls should want to be like her, while the men should crave her. Add alcohol and drugs into the mix and things very quickly descend into the stuff of nightmares.
The novel starts off like a typical YA book, friends hanging out, classroom chats, after school chats and online banter. A host of characters are introduced, very quickly, and there is a balance of males and females. The night of the party changes the books direction and the reader is sucked into the very real and raw events that occur on that fateful night. There is no easy way to describe the pain I felt in my gut, at this stage. It was a bit like when you receive some terrible news, and your breathing and heart rate just shift, leaving a lump in your throat and a pain in your soul. Sure, Emma was not a likeable character, especially when drunk. Sure, she was flirty, cunning and out to get what she wanted. But that does NOT make it right. Ever. It is irrelevant what she wore (with another, more staid character, even mentioning that she owned the same dress), or whether she had previous sexual relationships. Quite simply, she did not consent. O’Neill cleverly uses an unlikable character to bring that point home. There is NO excuse for rape, or sexual assault.
The second half of the book examines Emma’s life a year after the event. This is almost as distressing as the party scene, as the reader sees her world collapse, along with the rest of the family. The accused are experiencing things very differently to the victim and the rural community are taking sides. The writing is sharp, honest, brutal and shows how backward the world is, in coming forward. This is a book marketed as YA, yet should be read by everyone over sixteen years of age, regardless of gender, to highlight the injustice of our legal system, our outdated attitudes to women and encourage discussion of what is ‘consent’. An outstanding book, not to be ignored. For the sake of females everywhere, present and future generations…