I received a copy of Asking For It in exchange for an honest review. Many thanks to Quercus and Netgalley.</b>
***Trigger Warning: this book deals with rape, sexual assault and victim blaming***
Emma O’Donovan is eighteen years old, pretty and confident. One night, she and her friends go to a party. Emma drinks plenty, takes some drugs, flirts and generally has a great time. The next morning, however, she wakes up on her front porch with no memory of the second half of her evening. Luckily for Emma, though, there are plenty of photos to tell her exactly what happened to her the night before.
I read this book in one sitting, ignoring pretty much everything around me as I devoured it. Emma’s story is harrowing and uncomfortable, but it’s such an important book in today’s climate of slut-shaming, victim-blaming, rape culture and the explosion of social media. I received t a review copy of this book a little while ago, and in light of the recent media commentary surrounding Brock Turner’s conviction for sexual assault, it seemed relevant to read it now.
Louise O’Neill describes a situation where a young woman goes to a party with her friends, gets trashed, and can’t remember what happened to her the morning after. The aftermath is almost as horrific as the attack itself. Not only does she have to deal with only having a series of sickening photos as her memories of the night, but she is shunned and harassed by her friends and acquaintances and suffers the ordeal of having her case discussed on television, radio and social media.
And the most horrific thing about this book? It’s not even fiction. Emma might just as well be the pseudonym for any number of sexual assault or rape survivors who have decided that it’s not worth pursuing their attackers, or if they do press charges (and only 15% of those who experience sexual violence do), they find how astonishingly low the actual rate of conviction in these cases is (5.7% of reported cases in the UK end in conviction).
Emma herself isn’t a likeable girl. She’s deeply disloyal to her friends, she steals, she’s vacuous and has an overinflated sense of self-importance combined with cripplingly low self-esteem, judging all the women she knows (including herself) in terms of their looks as opposed to their personalities. So, pretty toxic. And this makes things very difficult as a reader. After all, it’s hard to empathise when bad things happen to bad people. And this in turn leads to the uncomfortable realisation that in thinking this we, as readers, are no better than the townsfolk and acquaintances who have ostracised Emma. No matter how rotten the person, non-consent is rape.
So: Emma’s acquaintances. Not a nice bunch of people. The only decent people as far as I could tell were Emma’s brother and her next door neighbour. The girls and women she knows, who you might expect to have some empathy for her, are amongst the worst of the lot, but I think in some respects it was the attitude of her parents that angered me the most. As a parent myself, I seriously cannot imagine anyone being so concerned by their social standing that they would encourage their child to not report an attack like this. Seriously, if this happened to my daughters, I would be round her attacker’s house with a baseball bat and pair of scissors to beat the shit out of them and cut their knackers off. Sadly, I do realise that some people are so weak they would put their own happiness before justice for their child.
There is a lot of discussion around slut-shaming, victim-blaming and the rise of social media. There’s also discussion about the nature of consent and how hard it is to gain a criminal conviction when the victim is promiscuous, has no memory of the events knows the perpetrator(s) and has previously consented to sex. This discussion is summarised in a very good online video by Emmeline May likening sexual consent to offering someone a cup of tea (you can tell I’m British, can’t you?).
I wavered between 4.5 and 5 stars for this book. Ultimately, I reserve five stars for books that I will definitely be re-reading, and I just don’t think I can read Emma’s story again. The harrowing nature of it is made even worse by the knowledge that every day rape survivors are facing the crippling pressure that Emma herself faces. I will, however, be recommending it to everyone I know.