Wednesday, 25 May 2016

Asking For It, by Louise O'Neill

Last year's YA Book Prize winner Louise O'Neill returns to take another well-aimed whack at the patriarchy and to bring the conversation about rape, consent and victim blaming into the social arena.

Asking for It is the story of Emma O'Donovan, a beautiful Irish 18 year old school girl; popular, clever, head-turningly gorgeous, Emma is torn between life staying the same forever, enjoying being the biggest, prettiest fish in the pond of Ballinatoom, versus getting out into the big wide world and making her mark. For the first part of the novel she enjoys a fairly normal social life; shopping, hanging out at the park, parties, drinking and casual, almost competitive sex.

We see Emma manipulating her friends, constantly trying to draw attention away from their genuine crises onto herself. She basks in attention; feels that she deserves it due to her undeniable beauty. She expects whistles and compliments from men and boys; then feigns annoyance that them, stung when they aren't forthcoming. Sometimes Emma's thoughts in parentheses save her, you think- if these are her real thoughts I feel bad for the effort and exhaustion it must cost her playing the beautiful ice queen. Other times the parentages just make me think, yeah, she's an absolutely horrible person. It's incredibly clever, what author Louise O'Neill has done. By putting the reader in the position of judge and jury, we take on the role of society and see how easy it is to pass judgement on people. She's the worst type of frenemy, the one that belittles everything that you're excited about and steals your boyfriend just to see if she can. Emma could easily be the bullying, poisonous antagonist in so many other YA coming-of-age novels. She's cruel and spiteful and we the readers want her to receive her comeuppance. We want something to happen to her that makes her change her ways and be nicer to the people around her, the people that she calls friends. But not that.

O'Neill has really seized hold of the idea that it's easy to judge, and it's easy to dismiss until the shoe is on the other foot. Emma is incredibly dismissive of her friend Jamie, herself a "yes actually that does count as rape" victim, and we see Emma in the earlier chapters actually laughing about it with the rapist himself- he makes a crack about girls' tendency to deny things they regret in the morning. We know Jamie has confided in Emma. We suspect it's the reason for her mood swings and drinking- yet it's not until Emma finds herself in the same position that it actually occurs to her that rape is a prevalent, essential issue and consent is very much a binary situation. At a weekend party a drunken pseudo-celebrity conquest spirals out of control- a consensual but unpleasant sexual experience becomes something completely different and much more criminal- and there are Facebook groups and Snapchat stories to preserve it for ever. Nothing is secret in the digital age, and even the most irrefutable evidence does not seem evidence enough.

I loved how the book deliberately and aggressively (and rightly so) challenges society's expectations, particularly when it comes to the portrayal of rape victims. Society, the Daily Mail, everyone would be quick to demand prison time for a male that attacked an innocent young girl on her way home- all the more so if it were a pretty, private school girl from a good family. What if she was wearing a dress cut to the bellybutton? What if she'd previously shown interest? made the first move, even? What if she was over 18? What if she was drunk? Would we then say that the girl was asking for it? That she got what she deserved? The whole novel is a brilliantly packaged way in to an incredibly crucial problem- a critical issue that we as a society are so disgustingly guilty of and that is victim blaming. It shows so clearly the reality of gendered expectations, and how the powerful aren't subject to the same rules as the rest. The town's heroes, good boys really, promising football stars, aspirational teens- can't possibly be rapists.

The second half of the book deals with Emma, a changed Emma, no longer Emma O'Donnelly, but the anonymously notorious "Ballinatoom Girl". Her case has exploded nationally. Everybody has an opinion, a judgement. Emma is torn apart by guilt- for all the lives she thinks she's ruined. For everyone she's tainted. For all the things she did and didn't do. She's a friendless, unsupported ghost in her own house. The lads in the videos- her 'friends' are enjoying life as usual, safe in the knowledge that everybody believes them- that Emma was Asking for It. They're good boys.

This is an angry, venomous book that demands that the reader listens to what it has to say. It dares you to confront your own behaviour and that of everyone around you. The more a person looks out for the victim blaming rhetoric, the more ubiquitous it seems. There are many chunks of this book that will stay with me for a long time. It's unexpectedly disturbed the way I view all justice. ALL justice. If our whole criminal system depends on the axiom of " Innocent until proven guilty", then the victim of a crime is automatically a liar until proven honest. I've never thought about that before. The whole book has made me question my own behaviour- I judge. Everybody judges to some extent. I'm going to try and do that less.

I urge everybody to read this book. Buy it for yourself, your kids. Buy it for you friends' kids. The more people that read this book, the better and more unavoidable the conversation around consent will be,

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