AT 18, Emma O’Donahue is beautiful, smart and supremely confident. She’s also controlling and fond of getting her own way.
There’s a party. Keen to prove she’s not risk averse, Emma takes something. The following day, when her parents find her strewn across the porch, sunburnt, she hasn’t a clue how she got there.
After some confused days, Emma sees pictures of herself on Facebook. Pictures showing her having sex with four boys as others look on. Acts she doesn’t remember. The pictures have been seen by ‘everyone’.
When she’s forced to report the incident to the gardaí, she’s reluctant, still hoping that it can be fixed, or simply forgotten.
The issues of teens and drink; of sexual consent; and of exposure in today’s digital world are important ones. Which is why O’Neill’s second book has been given enormous media prominence.
Whilst that ensures sales, it’s a shame in one way; because it takes the attention away from analysis of the book itself. And Asking For It is about so much more than that fundamental issue.
It’s an astute, if frightening portrait of the pressures of being a teenager.
Emma has three good friends; the loved-up Maggie, who drives them all to school in an old banger — and not the Volvo she drove until an incident involving Emma showed she was untrustworthy.
There’s Ali, who wants for nothing, but is aware that Karen, her glamorous mother, would prefer a daughter like Emma, who complemented her better. And there’s Jamie, whose parents have lost everything in Ireland’s recession.
Emma is far from a perfect friend. Constantly undermining the others with carefully placed bitchy remarks, she’s desperate to keep the limelight.
But if, like her, you’ve spent your life since toddlerhood being approached by strangers who remark on your beauty, this is understandable.
Not that Emma is secure. She’s constantly rehearsing conversations, haunted by hearing, at 14, a boy saying, ‘Emma O’Donoghue is hot, but she’s as boring as fuck!’
In the first half of this ground-breaking novel, as we follow the teenagers through their schooldays; their encounters with boys and their all-important on-line lives, it becomes clear that the pressure to be popular and academic, as well as beautiful and immaculately turned out, causes the girls constant anxiety.
Emma is aware that she’s not a great friend. When Jamie approaches her, desperate for advice after she’s been forced into sex, she advises her friend to keep quiet, and pretend it didn’t happen. Later, aware Jamie suffers repercussions, Emma vows to be better.
The rape changes everything. Self-love becomes self-loathing. ‘I am an it ... pink-flesh, of legs spread open for all to see.’
She avoids being out to hear the whispers. Or to glimpse her rapists, standing around, taunting her.
When the case hits the media, Emma is well aware that many in the town and beyond, believe that she, as ‘The Balinatoom girl,’ was, indeed, asking for it.
The disintegration of Emma’s family is most skilfully handled. Unable to identify, her father simply ignores his former princess. Will life ever return to normal? The book rather fizzles out demonstrating that there really are no easy answers.
This is a stunning portrait of a girl; a family, and a town in trouble. It’s an important book; well thought out, brilliantly conveyed and written, and it confirms the prize winning writer as Ireland’s leading proponent of Young Adult Fiction.
It’s shocking, sure, but ultimately, it’s unbearably sad.
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