Book Chat: Asking for It by Louise O’Neill

book coverCross-over fiction, books targeted at a young adult market but capturing the imagination of the fully fledged adult reader, have long been on the horizon.  Coming-of-age classics like “The Catcher in the Rye” and issue driven narratives such as “To Kill a Mockingbird” spring to mind.  However, of late, this niche in the fiction market seems heavily populated.  Texts ranging from the Twilight saga and the Harry Potter series, to the more recent “Fault in Our Stars” and “The Perks of Being A Wallflower”, were all surely pitched at a demographic significantly younger than the average commuter on a train.  But, for whatever reason, novels for young people occasionally capture the imagination of the not so young and someone produces a piece of literature that crosses generational divides. Louise O’Neill’s “Asking For It” is one such novel.

It unflinchingly tackles the issues of sex, drugs, alcohol and consent in the lives of a group of Irish teenagers and has a haunting air of reality that is sure to make it an uncomfortable read for any parent of teenage girls or indeed boys.

Emma, the central protagonist, is raped at a party but is so out of it she has no recollection of what happened.  The horrors of the night come to light as a result of photos taken on mobile phones and uploaded to Facebook.

The complexity of Emma, a girl who is not instantly likable, is one of the strengths of this novel.  We believe in her, because we have known her. We have been jealous of her looks, we have criticised her lack of personality, we have lacked sympathy for her humiliations.  As teenage girls, we watched her bask in the attention that surrounded her and never stopped to consider her almost crippling insecurities, mainly because we were too hung up on our own.

Emma makes poor choices; she gets drunk, she takes drugs, she doesn’t say stop when she feels uncomfortable.  None of this matters.  Emma was raped. There is no other relevent point.

And yet her small community does not concur. There is judgement, there is gossip, there is pressure to accept some (or all) of the responsibility.  The horrendous, but somehow enduring dichotomy of “sluts” and “studs”, bubbles constantly in the background.  It makes us, as does almost every element of this text, question the society we exist within.

Emma’s life falls apart under the microscope of unwanted attention.  A stunning teenage girl, her identity and her body were inextricably linked in her eyes.  Now she hates her body. Wouldn’t you if it was posted all over Facebook, without your consent, in the most compromising of positions? But if she isn’t pretty, what is she?  Nothing?   It is a damning indictment of modern society and our obsession with the physical. Emma is an uncomfortable character to consider, because we live in a society that is peppered with Emmas.

Despite the poignancy that characterised the tragedy of Emma, for me, a female in my 30s, it was the mother lingered who uncomfortably in my mind, every time the book was out of my hand.  Escaping her problems through chilled Pinot Grigio and struggling to keep up appearances in her middle class world, she is crumbling silently but definitively. Essentially, she fails to cope, the whole family does, but that must be tragically common in situations as gut-wrenchingly difficult as Emma’s.

While the writing is accomplished, it is the complete refusal to sugarcoat the plot, to give us the outcomes we root for, to create unrealistic characters that fit black and white moulds, that made this read more than worthy of the entire weekend  afternoon, spent curled by a turf fire, that I devoted to it. Recommended for women of all ages, but mothers approach with caution.

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