OK, today we’re doing something a bit different. I’m not sure how this will go, but I have so many feelings about this author I just had to go for it.
Louise O’Neill is an Irish writer of young adult fiction, whose work has been praised by Jeanette Winterson and compared to Margaret Atwood. She has two published books and contributed in 2016 to I Call Myself A Feminist, a collection of essays published by Virago from women under 30 explaining why they see themselves as feminists. Asking For It was a number 1 Bestseller in Ireland, named Book of the Month in September 2015 by the Irish Times, and awarded Book of the Year at the Irish Book Awards in the same years. O’Neill has also worked on a documentary of the same name about rape culture in Ireland. She writes a weekly column for the Irish Examiner.
Her first novel, Only Ever Yours, was extolled by not just the YA community but across the literary world as an astonishing piece of feminist fiction. Only Ever Yours is a dystopian novel in the tradition of The Handmaid’s Tale, in a world where girls are taught in school to fit into a set of female roles – wife, teacher, concubine. The girls compete with each other to be the prettiest, bitching and undercutting their peers through their own form of social media. I have heard some describe it as The Handmaid’s Tale meets Mean Girls, which may be the most appropriate description. I powered through it in a single train journey; even though sometimes it hurt to read I couldn’t unglue myself from the pages until it was done. It is harrowing from start to finish, not least because it remains witty and insightful throughout.
However, it was with her second novel, Asking For It, that O’Neill started popping up everywhere. It seemed like every blogger, every reader, every BookTuber I followed was talking about this book. Only Ever Yours was an excellent book, but Asking For It was extraordinary. In this novel, O’Neill takes several steps closer to home. Based in modern day Ireland, Asking For It tells the story of an Irish teenager who is raped at a party, and the book follows the fallout. I knew this going in, but I was not prepared. Like Only Ever Yours, this novel does not shy away from the difficult and problematic facts of the events that unfold. It is unflinching and essential reading.
I had heard all this before I started reading, but I was still astounded by the quality of this book. It is a compelling and utterly gruelling treatise on rape culture, treatment of victims of sexual abuse, and the societal impulse to believe in innocence until guilt is proven, un-raped until proven raped. From the moment Emma, the main character in Asking For It, begins to uncover the pictures of herself and her assault on social media, and sees the jeering, awful responses from her classmates, it is hard to believe it is going to get worse – but it does. It is unbearable, but I could not and would not stop reading.
Louise O’Neill has proven herself, with these two books as well as her online presence and activism, to be one of the most important voices in Young Adult fiction right now, and possibly of all time. I urge you to follow her on Twitter, read her columns, and pick up her books. She will make you think, and feel, and make you desperate to change the way things are.
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