This is the seventh of my reviews of the YA Book Prize shortlist. I’m going to be reading and reviewing each title on the shortlist, so HOLD TIGHT and get ready for FEELINGS and OPINIONS.
Emma O’Donovan is eighteen and beautiful, queen of her small Irish town. She isn’t perfect; she’s a normal girl. A good girl. When she drinks too much and take drugs at a party, she ends up with a stretch of time she can’t account for. She doesn’t remember how she ended up collapsed on the porch that morning. There are photos on Facebook of a girl called Emma, but how can it possibly be her that the men in the pictures are doing those things to? Even as she struggles to apply the word “rape” to what happened to her, the town is turning against her. Those golden boys would never do a thing like that. It must be her fault. She was asking for it.
I still don’t know how to review this book. I first read it back in September last year and didn’t manage to formulate a coherent review then. It’s just so visceral, it’s difficult to consider the book objectively. Emma’s story is too real. It’s uncomfortably like trying to critique news headlines.
I loved Only Ever Yours, and while Asking For It is similar in its themes and tone (i.e. they are both devastating) O’Neill’s second novel does not have the extended sci-fi metaphor to help distance us from the events of the novel. This is heavy subject matter. The contemporary setting is perfectly drawn – the use of social media in this book is among the most convincing I’ve seen in YA, and the teen dialogue is apparently very authentic too. The relationships between Emma and the rest of her squad, Ali, Maggie, and Jamie, are all too real in their petty cruelties. Within just a few pages, we get a strong sense of these girls’ lives and rankings within the friendship group. The web of connections between the characters is deftly done, and creates a feeling of claustrophobia. This is a small town. Everyone knows everyone’s business.
This is a book about rape culture, and it opens up discussion around consent and assault in a relatively safe way. “I wish another girl had been the one to start the national conversation,” Emma thinks, after her case has blown up in the news and on social media. Young adult literature is an important place to start these conversations, because through fiction we develop empathy, and can talk about complex, emotive topics with the remove of it all being about a made-up person.
Asking For It is a difficult read because nothing ever gets better. The hopelessness experienced by Emma is realistic, and makes the novel the gritty read it is. Even at the very end, when she finally realises a way out, she has been stripped of her agency. She is unable to examine her own needs, since everyone has been telling her what she needs to do and who she needs to be this whole time. It’s a bleak depiction of what it is to grow up female in a misogynistic world. Be a good girl until you break. If you break, it’s all your fault. What did you expect? Her brother Bryan tries to support her, but his version of not giving up on Emma involves her just doing exactly what he wants her to do. In therapy, Emma tries to give the therapist the answers she wants. The only people there for her in a meaningful way are Maggie and Conor, and she can’t bear their kindness. She genuinely does not know how to exist in a space where her choices are for her own benefit. Emma is a victim. It would have been more satisfying to see her reclaim some power, but her character’s journey is chillingly true to life. It’s so much easier to give up. To stop asking for anything at all.
This is an angry, desperate book, searingly important and brilliantly upsetting. If you don’t wind up furious and worried about young women everywhere, you haven’t been reading properly.