Asking For It
by Louise O’Neill
riverrun, an imprint of
Quercus Editions Ltd., 2015
The title of Louise O’Neill’s second novel gives a good indication of the theme which is confirmed by a flip to the back pages where one finds a listing of contact info for Rape Crisis Centers. So, yes, it’s quite a familiar theme, unquestionably important, yet one we’re perhaps weary of, considering the raft of fiction in recent years taking on the topic. Don’t be put off. For one thing, this is about rape in the age of social media. For another, our protagonist/victim is not one who wholly draws our sympathy.
Eighteen-year-old Emma O’Donovan is the most beautiful girl in the small Irish town of Ballinatoom. It makes her special and she likes the attention. A good first third of the book shows only the interaction between her and her friends. It goes on a bit too long, but we see how important those friendships are, even if Emma often comes across as haughty and mean, and is shown pocketing her rich friend Ali’s expensive sunglasses. In other words, she’s not all that likable. But who doesn’t want to be in her circle?
Skip ahead to a big party at the home of a friend whose parents are out of town. Emma dresses to kill and immediately gets into the swing of things. She is not a drug taker, but she wants to impress, especially when she's called “innocent.” Then:
A shiver ripples over my skin, like the tiniest chip of a pebble hitting a pool
of water. It starts swirling in my feet, and creeps slowly up my legs, bleeding
from one cell to the next, and it feels so good, it feels so good, it feels so good
that I can’t help quiver with it, stretching my feet and my toes out like my body
might break open.
Cut ahead 24 hours. Whatever happened at the party, Emma doesn’t have a clue. But social media has recorded it all. And it’s very, very ugly.
O’Neill, who wields some very fine prose, does a marvelous job of showing Emma’s utter confusion and refusal to see it for what it was: gang rape. True, often rape victims feel partly responsible for what happened, but in Emma’s case she doesn’t even know what happened - except from photos. They tell the story. They say: You are a slut. They say: You were asking for it.
It is a wise strategy on the author’s part to create Emma as a girl we are not drawn to. It gives the reader the distance needed to look upon events without the full-blown emotion of solid empathy. That takes time to build; it’s something the reader has to work at.
The novel is considered a young adult novel, aimed at late teens and twentysomethings. This is essential reading for that age group. But it is also essential reading for the parents, friends and acquaintances of that age group. For all the marvels of social media, it has the power to completely destroy lives. This is an all too real cautionary tale that needs to be shared. J.A.
© 2016 tbr
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