This book, and therefore review are about rape.
The police terminated enquiries on more than 1,300 rape cases last year in England and Wales, leading to a large drop in convicted rape criminals that year (1). With women across the world afraid to step forward, and with conviction rates so low when they do, Asking for It puts a face and identity to these shocking statistics.
To Emma, image is everything. She considers herself to be the most beautiful girl in her year, protecting her delicate skin from the summer sun and priding herself on a thriving social life, good grades and likable personality, maintained despite her beauty. She greets everyone in the school corridor, whether she likes them or not, to not be considered rude and chooses which boy will look most impressive to take home. But when whisperings get back to her that she’s considered ‘pretty but boring’ she’s decides she must seem more spontaneous. More like the sort of girl who takes class A drugs at a party. But does this mean she deserves the brutality that occurs next, her shame documented on Facebook for the world to see?
“I am not falling apart. I am being ripped at the seams, my insides torn out until I am hollow.“
Through Emma’s actions and thoughts at the beginning of Asking for It the reader is presented with an unlikable protagonist. Emma is selfish: stealing from her friends, bossing others around and showing off about her good grades. She is conceited and vein, prizing her beauty and reputation above anyone and anything else. O’Neil’s choice to create an unlikable heroine only amplifies the message of the novel. A young woman so arrogant and self centered, who drinks heavily, goes to parties and willingly takes drugs, is surely ‘asking for it’. Yet through the events of the novel it is impossible for any reader to draw that conclusion. It is through this reflection that O’Neil proves that no victim can be at fault, regardless of their character or circumstances.
The setting of the novel, Ireland, is unique but not particularly defining for the events of the novel. The backlash Emma receives from her close knit community when she raises a rape charge, which prevents the town’s darling star football player from competing, and another promising young man from a prestigious arts scholarship, is universal. The unfair shame placed on women for being sexually assaulted, reiterated in the authors notes and explored in the novel, are universal regardless of location or culture.
As suggested in the title, victim blaming is the most weighted point this novel explores. The guilt Emma feels for the tensions in her family, the distrust in her community and the backlash from her peers is what, ultimately, leads to her shocking decision at the end of the novel. O’Neil makes stark comparisons between Emma’s life after the incident and her perpetrators: we see the boys freedom to continue with their schooling, gaining the support and sympathies of their classmates, while Emma struggles alone, stifling her chances at university and a future. The treatment Emma receives following her rape highlights a powerful and shocking message which, disappointingly, is still seen in society today. This relevance makes the subject matter all the more important as the question of whether Emma was ‘Asking for it’ is constantly put to the reader.
The pacing and plot of Asking for It is split: we are first guided through Emma’s life, shown her school, character and friends. The ordinary setting and typical social pressures are highlighted in what feels like an introduction to any young person’s life. The later half of the novel is feels very different. As we see Emma’s world view after the rape, witness her shame and the backlash of her decision to press charges the reader is faced with a slower more stifled novel that reflects Emma’s life. The slower pace and sparse plot do not reflect poorly on the authors talent, but rather focus the reader on Emma’s desperate situation, leaving her to despair over the loss of her own future.
“They are all innocent until proven guilty. But not me. I am a liar until I am proven honest.“
The writing style in this novel is simple. Descriptions are sparse, for example Emma is only described as beautiful, but no other details of her appearance are given. At times this made dialogue difficult to attest to one character, however, it made the novels point all the more prominent as there is little clutter weighing down the prose.
A sex scene is briefly described in Asking for It and, given the very sensitive subject matter and discussions of suicide, this novel for older readers carrying serious trigger warnings.
This novel explores and emphasises an issue that is all too relevant and important. It’s powerful message is expertly delivered in a way that calls up society on its harmful beliefs and attitudes towards rape victims, cleverly demonstrating to any reader that nobody is ‘asking for it’.