A difficult read, not only due to it’s exploration of rape culture, but it’s raising of other issues in a patriarchal society, O’Neill once again shocks and captures the truth all at once. And yet, I have issues with this account of rape, and am not sure if it would be a good recommendation for young readers, not due to its content, but its handling.
[Photo from Goodreads]
Emma lives in a small town in Ireland where traditional views on how young girls should behave prevail. Even when Emma is violently gang-raped at a party and video evidence circulates around the town and social media. O’Neill tells the story of victim-blaming and miscarriages of justice that all too often face rape victims.
Having read O’Neill’s Only Ever Yours (2014) earlier this year, I was really keen to see more of her work, and have been especially interested in how YA writers are making feminist thinking available and interesting for younger readers. I really value O’Neill’s sensitivity and boldness in tackling the huge and uncomfortable topic of rape, and it’s so important to have a book dedicated entirely to this, rather than just featuring rape or sexual assault as a subplot. As this review will outline, I had numerous problems with the portrayal of rape and rape victims in this book, but I do still think O’Neill deserves praise for bringing this issue back into the talking arena among young readers.
One of the main issues I have is the romanticising of rape. Let me be clear, I do not lay the blame for this with the author, but with society and the subconscious interpretations of readers. Emma is characterised from the offset as a beautiful, desired girl and it is suggested that the reason she finds herself alone in a bedroom with the boys is because of her attractiveness. To a young, vulnerable teenage mind, the lines are drawn to connect beauty with rape, to connect being raped with being desirable. I think this is massively problematic and that perhaps there shouldn’t have been as much focus on Emma’s physical attributes in order to show that in a discussion of rape these should be irrelevant. Even Emma at one point admits that she likes the drama of her life, that she enjoys her mother’s cancer scare because it brings her attention – such honesty doesn’t make her an admirable character, but one that makes an older reader who’s been through teenagehood squirm uncomfortably.
On the flip side of this argument, I would also worry that because of her vanity and beauty, Emma can definitely be perceived as an unlikeable character. I understand that this may be part of the point: women aren’t perfect, they can be vain and nasty and weak, just like men can, but that still doesn’t mean they deserve some of the things that happen to them. And yet, I feel like Emma was made into such an ugly person internally that it was difficult to form a bond with her, which unfortunately extends to any sympathy. This is the last thing a book for YA readers about rape should be doing; rather, it should be fostering a community of empathy and resistance.
This problem was perpetuated by the poor relationships she had with others: she never reconciled with her friends, she fought with her parents, and she wasn’t particularly close with her brother, who is the only fully supportive figure in her life. These issues were only further highlighted by the end of the novel, which didn’t tie up any of the loose strings, including the subplot of the romantic interest Conor, or the outcome of the trial. Whilst, once again, I acknowledge that this may be a device used by O’Neill to prove how rape victims often don’t get the closure they seek, if this book seeks to educate or empower young girls, it should follow the end to its logical conclusion, even if it is an ugly one. As the book didn’t do this, it felt like a very loose and inconclusive end, which was disappointing because as a reader you’ve followed Emma’s journey and want to know how it ends for her. Throughout the book, there had been big jumps in time, covering the incident and then fastforwarding to points in the future, which made for a very joltily-paced read and failed to fully integrate the whole process into one path.
Additionally, I found the writing style lacking in subtlety. Emma’s fixation on ‘pink flesh, splayed legs’, for me, is a good example to use here. This obsession seems very true to a rape victim’s experience, indeed to anyone suffering with PTSD or trying to move on with their life after a particularly damaging experience, but it was referred to and used so often that it began to lose effect, and I feel there would have been better ways to document Emma’s mindset at this time.
In conclusion then, I wanted this book to be so much more powerful than it was. That’s not to say it wasn’t a fair portrayal because it was, and it still made me angry about the state of our society in terms of sexism and rape culture, but it could have been a lot more effective by addressing some of the issues above. Ultimately, it felt like Asking for It had all the ingredients – the title alone picks up on a massive issue we have in society of victim-blaming – but didn’t quite execute the recipe successfully enough to make it a beneficial read.