I don’t normally do book reviews, but after recently finishing Louise O’Neill’s asking for it, I almost feel compelled. In fact I think it’s something I’ll start doing a lot more of. Since finishing college It’s great to finally have the freedom to read what I want to read again! So lets get down to it.
It was one of those books I found myself wincing the entire way through. It invoked every single emotion in me, and some I didn’t even realise I had.
On the surface Emma seems to have it all, she’s popular, is surrounded by a group of friends and is incredibly beautiful. If I’m honest at first I found her character a little annoying. She’s selfish, inconsiderate, and obsessed with material things. She’s not a good friend and to be quite blunt about it, she’s a bitch.
However, I soon came to realise how important these elements of Emma’s character were for the development of O’Neill’s plot. She doesn’t create the stereotypical ‘good girl fall from grace’. Emma is desperate to prove herself. She does things she knows are reckless to test people’s perceptions of her. She constantly repeats the mantra ‘I am Emma Donovan I am Emma Donovan’, in an attempt to reassure herself that she knows who she is, she is confident and in control, but it couldn’t be further from the truth.
Deep down Emma is struggling with her sense of identity, placing all of her self worth on her physical attributes. It’s almost as if she views sex as a form of acceptance. She ends up being raped at a party by 4 boys she thought were here friends. The narrative that ensues as a result can only be described as heart breaking.
On the night in question Emma flirts with boys, wears a revealing dress, and even takes drugs. All actions which are used against her afterwards in an attempt to claim she deserved what happened to her, that ‘she was asking for it’. Pictures of Emma passed out on a bed with the boys taking advantage of her are uploaded to a Facebook page called ‘Easy Emma’. In one picture one of the boys is seen vomiting over her, while another urinates on her head, evoking a vile comment on the page saying ‘she deserves to be pissed on’. Emma is completely unresponsive in the pictures, but don’t worry ‘she was asking for it’.
The rest of the novel deals with Emma’s struggle to come to terms with what happened. The saddest part of it all is that like many victims of rape, she blames herself. She didn’t want to report the boys. She wanted to protect them. She even tries to apologise to them after a school teacher contacts the guards. She lies and tries to pass it off by saying she was pretending to be asleep. It’s her fault her mother has taken to drinking and her father can’t look her in the eye or socialise with his friends. It’s her fault her brother has lost his girlfriend. It’s her fault her friends aren’t really her friends any more. It’s her fault the lives of the ‘Good Boys’ are ruined.
Only it’s not. It’s not her fault at all. And that’s the point O’Neill is cleverly hammering home. Emma gains national notoriety as ‘Ballinatoom Girl’, and it’s an all too familiar narrative. We’ve seen it with Ireland’s own ‘Slane Girl’, where photos of a young girl performing oral sex at an Eminem concert surfaced on the internet. Of course she was the slut. She was the whore. She was the irresponsible one. No mention of the boys on the receiving end. Or the person who photographed it and circulated for the world to see.
‘Ballinatoom girl’ is not just a work of fiction. She is a representation of every woman who has fallen victim to harassment, assault, slut-shaming, and rape. She is someone’s daughter, sister and friend. She should not be dismissed. We need to talk more about consent and rape culture.
O’neill’s novel is forcing society to take a long hard look at itself. Why are we vilifying young girls for virtually everything they do? So what if they wear short skirts, drink vodka and post selfies. Does that mean they deserve to get raped? I just don’t understand why we are so quick to pardon the guilty and punish the innocent.
The shocking reality is this novel is everywhere. It’s real. It’s happening here in Ireland, and it’s happening all over the world. Take the recent Brock Turner case in the US. It honestly makes me sick to my stomach. A rapist serves 3 months of a pitiful 6 month sentence for the rape of a girl at a college party. But it’s okay. It wasn’t his fault. His life was ruined. Dreams of becoming a professional swimmer slashed as a result of what was it his dad put it? ’20 minutes of action’.
It was all her fault of course. The girl who’s name we don’t even know. The girl who was attacked. The girl who’s body was laid bare behind a dumpster for all to see. The girl who cried rape. The girl who can’t remember. The girl who was drunk.