Louise O’ Neill’s debut novel, Only Ever Yours, was dark, angry and dystopian. A compelling read, it won the CBI award for newcomer of the year, and the Young Adult Books Prize 2015. There was something really special in it, a work of young adult fiction that was also a polemic. A call to arms.
Her second offering, Asking For It, retains that darkness and the anger, but it is chillingly realistic. This is something that has happened. That is happening, and will continue to happen in small towns and big cities. In Ireland and abroad. The novel has several references to songs by Hole, and the spirit of Riot Grrl is alive and well here. The world of Asking For It is bleak for a girl. Dangerous. Full of traps.
Emma herself is a product of rape culture. She is beautiful, and thinks that her beauty is the most important thing about her. Men are medals, the boys she has been with validate her role within the world. But then, she is raped. And it changes everything. The way she sees herself, the way she is seen. The narrative of her life is shaped by the actions of the young men of the town. And she is canonised and vilified for surviving what they did to her. Social media plays a huge role in Asking For It, and Emma’s violation continues on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook. She might not be able to remember exactly what happened, but she is also not being allowed to forget.
There is a time-slip midway through the novel, which allows up to feel the immediacy of the event, but also the long term effect that it has had on Emma and her family, as well as Ballinatoom, the village in which they live. Emma’s anonymity is another interesting aspect of the novel, as circumstances conspire to strip her of the identity she has built, the future she envisioned. By the end of the novel, she’s more Ballinatoom girl than she is Emma. The impact of what she is being forced to go through is stunting. Her agency, once taken, isn’t returned. The frustration and sadness that breeds is palpable. A lot of copies of this book are going to be tearstained. Tears of rage.
A lot of the incidents in the novel are based on real events (Lavinia Kerwick, Steunbenville, Fr Seán Sheehy…) and the familiarity of the story is one of the most horrifying things about it. This fictional account is something that has happened. That is happening. That will happen again. This is the sort of book teenage feminists are built of. In a world where the victim is blamed for her survival, and rapists lauded for their resilience, how can anyone hope to retain their humanity?
There are no easy answers. But Asking For It asks all the difficult questions over and over again, until you listen. Until it breaks your heart.