Off My Bookshelf

Wow but this book was unsettling.

I like Louise O'Neill; her Only Ever Yours blew me away and The Surface Breaks, her retelling of The Little Mermaid is really really excellent, so this book, which I got for Christmas, is a book I was looking forward to. Although looking forward to feels like the wrong phrase somehow because I knew what this book was about and I knew it was going to be unflinchingly brutal and I knew it was going to make me feel things, but I knew I wanted to read it anyway because I knew it would be good and I honestly genuinely feel like books like this one are important. Pop this on the curriculum alongside To Kill A Mockingbird please.

Seriously though: so unsettling.

Unsettling I think, because it's so horrifyingly believable. This isn't a book you like reading, that you enjoy, or actually get any pleasure out of reading, although please don't take that to mean O'Neill can't write because she absolutely can; this book wouldn't be what it is if she couldn't,  and it has a kind of stream of consciousness feel to it which I absolutely loved but it's a book you kind of power through knowing even as it makes your skin crawl that you are reading something profoundly important.

At its core, it's a really fascinating and horribly real look at victim blaming and consent and rape culture and social media, telling the story of an 18 year old girl who gets horribly horribly drunk at a party and has no idea that she's had sex with several of the guys she knows until videos and photos are put on social media and go viral.

It's clever, because Emma, the main character, is not likeable. I mean seriously: 18 year old me would have thought she was a total bitch. The first part of the book, the set up, shows her as bitchy and entitled and hostile. She's pretty, she's the popular girl, i n fact she's the ultimate mean girl, cruel even to her best friends -  and interestingly it turns out that one of her friends had non-consensual sex and Emma told her to keep quiet about it. Which, wow.

It's hard to relate to Emma and I loved that that's who O'Neill chose to tell this story - not some quiet lovely adorable girl with a heart of gold who never did anything bad to anybody ever, but this hostile cruel beautiful girl who gets drunk and goes to bed with strangers, who wants to be the girl all the boys notice, the girl all the boys (including her friend's boyfriend or the boy her other friend has a crush on) want.
She has casual sex, she drinks a lot, she treats most people in her life like shit, and the thing about it that sure she;s fictional but also, Emma exists. There are people like Emma everywhere and that's what makes this book so terrifyingly, heartbreakingly fascinating: would Emma have been treated differently if she'd been a nicer person; would people still have said she was asking for it if she hadn't been the one to instigate sex with one of her perpetrators previously; would people have been more willing to accept it was rape if she'd been sober enough to say no?

That's the point of this book: just because you wear a short skirt, because you like to have sex, because you make the first move, because you go out every weekend and get blind drunk and go home with a guy you just met, that doesn't mean you've given up your agency, that your right to say no has been revoked, that a load of guys can take turns whilst you lie there barely conscious and put the evidence on Facebook, that you were asking for it.

How many times have we heard that phrase though, she was asking for it.

When I was at school the word slut was thrown about lightly, you were a slut if you dressed provocatively - you were asking for it; you were a slut if you slept around, and whilst boys would give each other high fives in the corridors for the number of girls they'd slept with, girls were called slags in black marker pen in the toilets.
Reading this book just made me hopelessly sad - it made me sad because this happens. It has happened, it is happening, it will continue to happen and it's so easy for me to sit here as an almost 36 year old woman and be angry but that doesn't change the fact that these are the attitudes of our society - you're not going out dressed like that - these are attitudes that are so ingrained that it scares me that they might never ever fully go away.

We, as women, can't go out and get as drunk as men do, we can't have no-strings sex and not be judged for it, we can't dress how we want, look good, flash the guys a smile, flirt a little maybe. We should be able to, we like to pretend that we can but we can't. I mean, for crying out loud, upskirting only became a criminal offence this month.

It's testament to Louise O'Neill's ability as a writer that she creates this character that you do not like and that she makes you sympathise with her - and oh my gracious did I sympathise with her. At times this book made me so angry, made me hurt so much it made me queasy. Emma's parents in particular made me so cross I wanted to throw things and I kept trying to find a way to see things from their point of view and I just couldn't.
As for the ending. Oh my God the ending. Also, if you want to talk about things in this book that made me so sad then we should talk about the ending. Oh, the ending. Except we won't talk about it because spoilers, but know this: it's so believable it hurts.

This book, basically, that is beautifully written and more honest probably than any of us are comfortable reading, is a triumph.