Emma O’Donovan is eighteen years old and desperate to believe that she is the most beautiful and desirable girl in her small Irish town of Ballinatoom. Emma’s sharp awareness of the importance of her good looks and the way that she puts other girls down may make her a character who is initially hard to sympathise with, but it’s easy enough to see beneath the surface. Emma is obsessed with her own image because she believes that she has nothing else going for her. She’s smart, but she pretends not to study so she can make out that her grades would be as high as those of her friend Jamie if only she had tried. And she’s terrified that nobody will really love her if they actually get to know her: ‘It falls silent once they’ve left, and I try and think of something to say. Emma O’Donovan is hot, I overheard a boy in my year say when we were fourteen and had just started going to the Attic Disco, but she’s as boring as fuck.’
In her careful curation of her own self-image, Emma feels like an amped-up collection of all the fears that most typically blight the lives of teenage girls. And what happens to her is equally heightened, and the stuff of those same teenagers’ worst nightmares. We know at the beginning of this novel, I think it’s fair to say, that Emma will be raped; but what happens to her is unexpected, and harrowing in its cruelty. I rarely find novels viscerally upsetting to read, but I did find Asking For It very moving, despite the fact that I have been lucky enough to experience nothing like this in my own life. I can only imagine how difficult it would be to read if you have shared anything that comes close to Emma’s ordeal. For me, the hardest section came near the end, when Emma is looking up at the ceiling of her childhood bedroom, having peeled away all of her old glow-in-the-dark stars from the paintwork some weeks earlier, and believing that she will spend her entire future in this house. ‘I would look at my mother and father, and marvel at how old they had become… And then I would realise that I was old too, my bones starting to creak as my skin sagged around them. I would lie awake in the same single bed that I had slept in since I was a child, staring at the blank ceiling, wondering where the stars had gone.’
In many ways, this is an important and necessary novel, especially as it is aimed at the young adult market (I read it shortly after watching BBC3’s Sex On Trial: Is This Rape?, which could stand as a practical demonstration of why we need to read more stories like Emma’s). However, I had two concerns about Asking For It. The first is literary. The novel, although so emotionally affecting, is not as well-written as it could be. The only fully-realised character is Emma herself; perhaps an inevitable consequence of Emma’s stiflingly intimate narration, but it robs the story of a chance to become more thoughtful and more interesting. I could barely tell either Emma’s friends or the group of boys involved in her abuse apart, and this really matters; by treating her abusers, especially, as individuals, the complexities of why this happened could have been more deeply explored. Emma’s friends are allowed a little more individuality, but O’Neill’s important realisation that many of them would have experienced sexual abuse and rape as well, if not as publicly as Emma, is dropped too early in the novel. By blurring Emma’s schoolmates into a monolith – with the exception of the sympathetic Conor – the group dynamics involved are flattened.
My second concern is more of an emotional one, and I am not certain that it is fair. I worried after finishing Asking for It that the picture it painted was simply too bleak. This is clearly an issue that O’Neill has considered, as she says in the afterword: ‘I didn’t do this to be sensational or to emotionally manipulate the reader. I did it because I wanted to have an ending that was true to the narrative itself.’ I fully agree with these statements; this novel is not emotionally manipulative, and its ending is absolutely realistic. My concern is that, because there seems to be no shred of hope for Emma by the end of this book, she is painted finally and absolutely as a ‘victim’, as somebody who can never get past what has happened to her. Her life has indeed been utterly ruined. While I know this is not the meaning that O’Neill intended, it plays too closely to the trope of rape being fundamentally destructive for a woman for my liking. I’m certainly not arguing that Emma should have ‘rallied’ completely or even partially by the end of this novel – I respect the emotional honesty in O’Neill’s depiction. But I wondered if there could have been a sense that there was something more for Emma – that this was not the event that would define her forever. For Emma as a fictional character rather than Emma as a real human being – because sadly I do believe that it is not unthinkable that a real Emma would never get past this. But by telling stories about rape, we hope to reshape how we think about it, as well as simply reporting the facts. Emma is invented, and O’Neill has chosen to tell her story. It’s a choice that I think it’s worth reflecting on.