Asking For It by Louise O’Neill

A review of the literary Young Adult novel Asking For It by Louise O’Neill.

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I bought this book, tried to read it, couldn’t, put it on the shelf and waited for a year. Now I’ve read it, and it’s devastating.

This book is about Emma, and what happens to her one night at a party.

Alice Sebold indirectly talks about this book’s theme in her memoir Lucky, where she was “fortunate” to be wearing sensible clothing, and how helpful it was when having her police pictures taken. Because if a girl wearing sedate clothes is attacked while walking home, we say How awful and She’s a victim. But if a girl wearing a skin-tight tiny dress, drinking at a party is attacked, we say Oh it’s so difficult to know what really happened and What did she expect, going to a place like that? and Girls have to be so careful and Girls need to take responsibility and I’m not saying it was her fault but…

This is the grey area we’re still reluctant to look at, the way we’re still shifting blame onto the victim. This is the crux of the book.

Emma is a girl who goes to a party in a tiny dress, and drinks, and takes drugs, and has sex; and undergoes horrific gang rape and violation. The first part has nothing to do with the latter.

This is a book almost entirely built around theme. The first part of the book is a build up to the party that Emma attends, and the second half is dealing with the fallout of what happens, so it’s not strong on plot. It’s a book of theme and character, and it excels in both areas.

The most important thing Louise O’Neill does in this book is make Emma extremely unlikeable. She’s self-absorbed, she’s judgemental, she’s cruel, she’s beautiful and she knows it and she uses it to manipulate everyone around her. She is what would be called a bitch and a slut. O’Neill doesn’t shy away from showing what kind of person she is, and she doesn’t shy away from showing what happens to her, because her character does not invalidate her trauma.

The secondary characters were by turns heart-breaking and disgusting. Emma’s parents are appalled by what happens to her, but there’s a strong undercurrent of self-pity in their distress. This is particularly clear with Emma’s mother, as before the attack her interactions with her daughter are a mixture of back-handed compliments and passive-aggressiveness. She feeds Emma with the idea that her value is tied up in her physical beauty—if she’s too pretty and popular, she’s a slut, but if she’s not pretty and popular, she’s a frumpy failure. The paradoxical anxiety and low self-esteem this creates feeds on Emma all throughout the book, and even when she’s at her worst, it’s clear why she acts this way.

As I said, this isn’t a plot-heavy book. If you like tightly-plotted fast-paced intricate books, this probably isn’t for you. But if you want a book that will make you think, that will disturb and repulse you and open your eyes to the culture we live in…then I strongly recommend you give Asking For It a read.

Alice Olivia Scarlett is a freelance editor. She lives in Thanet with the seagulls and parakeets.

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