book review: Asking For It by Louise O’Neill

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ASKING FOR IT by Louise O’Neill
★★★★★
Quercus, 2015

Asking For It is a difficult book. As if the subject matter isn’t disturbing and harrowing enough – an 18-year-old girl is raped and then ostracized from her community because of it – Louise O’Neill’s approach to this story is ruthlessly, unnervingly honest. Emma O’Donovan’s story isn’t one of healing and closure and happy endings, and it can be hard to read because of that, but it shows an important side to this story that we don’t often see depicted in fiction.

The most striking thing about Asking For It is how unlikable our heroine Emma is. The first quarter of the book is devoted to her treating her friends rather poorly and treating prospective partners like trophies; she’s stuck-up, vain, and self-centered. She wears short skirts and low-cut dresses, she drinks a lot of alcohol and takes drugs recreationally, and when she’s raped by four boys, the question in absolutely everyone’s mind – from her classmates to her parents to strangers who pass her on the street – is ‘wasn’t she asking for it?’ Louise O’Neill challenges this absolutely vile conception of what a ‘good victim’ should look like: someone who’s a virgin, who dresses modestly, whose trauma responses fit perfectly into the DSM-5. People like Emma (though she’s fictional, she’s all too real) don’t fit into this mold and their allegations of rape are often met with disdain, which is why it’s all the more critical that we support them.

Obviously, a book tackling an important and difficult subject matter doesn’t in and of itself make it a good book, so I’m glad to say that I was blown away by Asking For It on just about every level. O’Neill’s writing is stunning (I did such a double take when I flipped to the back cover and saw how young she is – not that young people can’t be good writers, obviously! but this book is nearly flawless on a technical level). Her characters are three-dimensional – Emma isn’t an archetype straight out of Mean Girls; she’s pretty and popular and vain, but it’s all rooted in a deep sense of insecurity that’s tied heavily into her upbringing, which O’Neill deftly explores in the way Emma relates to her family. I also liked that I didn’t at any point feel like I was being preached to, which is something I occasionally feel while reading YA as an adult. O’Neill explores these issues with subtlety and doesn’t shy away from asking difficult questions of her readers. My one minor critique is that the rate at which secondary characters are introduced at the beginning of the novel is a little excessive – the first thirty or so pages were me going ‘wait, who is that?’ – but once over this hurdle, the book settles into a gripping pace.

This book isn’t going to be for everyone, and I’d certainly advise that you proceed with caution if you’re triggered by this subject matter or if you struggle with anxiety (my heart was racing pretty much the entire time I was reading). But it is such a critically important contribution to the discussion of rape culture. O’Neill fearlessly advocates justice for all rape victims, not just the ones whose stories are easier to digest, that fit better into our conceived narrative of what ‘counts’ as rape. We need to stop blaming rape victims and start listening to their stories, full stop.

29 thoughts on “book review: Asking For It by Louise O’Neill

  1. I’m so happy you read this book and loved it too! ❤
    The subject of the book is so important – sometimes I'm afraid to get into books with such important subjects because I'm nervous of how they will deal with everything – but this one seems to have a great execution. I'll have to read it soon.
    Thanks for the lovely review, Rachel! ❤

    Liked by 1 person

    • I totally get that – I doubt I would have picked this up if it hadn’t come highly recommended by people whose opinions I trust. But I’m so glad I did – it’s easily one of the best depictions of rape culture I’ve ever seen. I hope you enjoy it when you read it! (Not that ‘enjoy’ is necessarily the right word…)

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    • Omg what’s your new site name, when I click on your name now it just tells me your old one isn’t available??

      Anyway YES READ IT I’d love to discuss it in more detail.

      Liked by 1 person

      • djsaklja I changed it to “cairenelibrarian” and now I have to figure out how to adjust everything because some pages aren’t working

        Liked by 1 person

      • What does cairene mean?? Like person of Cairo??

        omg rip WP is so fuckin confusing…… I know one of the things you have to do is click on your avatar in the upper right of your screen and change your url on that page but otherwise ??? godspeed

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      • TELL ME ABOUT IT i still don’t know how half of this website works…when i comment are you able to click on my name and go to my site?? or is it not clickable?

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      • oh NVM it looks like since I changed it new comments will be clickable but old ones don’t even change?? that’s a really shitty system but alas

        Liked by 1 person

      • OMG ????? why is this the most nonsensical platform of all time……. but yes now when I click on your name I go to your new url so that’s something at least

        Liked by 1 person

      • I like usernames that are unique/have personality bc I follow approximately 200 blogs that are all some variation of ‘a book reader’ and I’m just like…….. who are all you ppl. so anyway cairene librarian is 👌🔥

        Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you! This was actually one of the easier 5 star reviews I’ve written recently, there wasn’t quite so much writer’s block when there’s an issue in the book that I’m already passionate about.

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  2. I totally get what you mean about feeling preached to sometimes in YA. If a book dealing with difficult issues isn’t done well than it can feel a bit too message-y or like a lecture. This book is such an excellent example of a YA book that doesn’t do that. Loved this book too for the same reasons you did.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Totally!! There are so many social justice-y YA books that I’d like to read because I want to support their messages, but I find it so grating when I feel preached at so I’m always a bit apprehensive going in. Even as a teenager (especially as a teenager??) I gravitated away from YA because I couldn’t stand being condescended to – I LOVE books like this that don’t underestimate the intelligence and emotional maturity of teens. This is the kind of YA I’d love to read more of!

      Liked by 1 person

    • YAY I’M GLAD this is the kind of book that I want to shove into everyone’s hands and say READ THIS but I also… do not want to do that… because the subject matter is so sensitive and I don’t want to trigger or emotionally scar anyone. That said you survived A Little Life so I BELIEVE IN YOU. Also if you want I can lend you my copy next time we swap books

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  3. Amazing review! I love the fact that Louise O’Neill made Emma so unlikable. The idea of there being such a thing as a ‘good victim’ is appalling and it made me so happy (if that’s a word I can use in relation to this novel) to see that idea challenged in a novel.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Ooh boy, this is going straight onto the TBR. But I’ll save it for a time when I’m feeling less stressed out and can do some bubble baths between reads, because it sounds like I’ll need ’em.

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  5. […] 4. Asking For It by Louise O’Neill.  This is hands down the best YA novel I have ever read.  It doesn’t patronize its reader or tread lightly with its harrowing subject matter.  In fact, it’s almost viscerally painful to read at times.  Louise O’Neill takes on the subject of rape culture through a criminally under-examined lens, and highlights the fact that victims of sexual assault aren’t always going to be very nice people, they aren’t always going to behave and respond to trauma in one particular way, but they are every bit as deserving of justice and compassion.  This book’s rawness and honesty really struck a chord and I’ve been unable to put it out of my mind since reading it early this year.  Full review here. […]

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