Friday 28 August 2015

Asking For It - Louise O'Neill

Ok so this review contains spoilers and bad language, if you'll be offended then don't bother reading this.

Shit.... 'scuse the language, but seriously if you are offended by that then this is not a book for you to read. In fact although I would say this is something that should probably be read by both sexes at some point, if they are too young or immature to cope with my initial language here then they are too young to be given this book. This is brutal, brutally honest, totally raw and deeply upsetting at times. Apparently more than 50% of kids today have watched online porn by the time they are around twelve, a really shocking fact about modern tech-savy childhood. This online generation not only have their sexual expectations formed by what they see in online porn, but they also have access to social media, giving them the potential power to share expectations and experiences instantly. I would hope that anyone who watched the recent Channel4 programme 'Sex in Class', was as shocked as I was by the attitudes expressed by some of the teens who took part.
This new novel from Louise O'Neill tackles issues of sexual consent and the impact of social media head on, in a brutal, raw and yet believable way.
The start of the novel introduces us to Irish teenager Emma O'Donovan. At eighteen she is beautiful, fun loving, and pretty typical. She likes to get drunk with her friends, she revels in showing off her body in skimpy outfits, and loves the 'power' that her appearance gives her over both men and women in her small town. She has had sexual partners, probably more that the average teen, most of these experiences have taken place under the influence and with some she has been left a little hazy on the details of quite what has happened. In many ways she really is something of a bitch, she treats her friends pretty badly and comes across as manipulative and self centred. It becomes clear that because of her pervious flirtatious behaviour her friends don't totally trust her around their boyfriends mainly because she struggles with anyone else every being the centre of attention. However her world is turned upside down when she attends a party and a group of boys basically decide to repay every flirt and every diss they have ever perceived from her. Due to a mix of drink and drugs she loses all control after consensual sex with one of the local sports stars. Next thing she knows she comes to outside her own house, with her underwear missing and her dress covered in God-knows-what and on backwards. What happens next is one of the more shocking things I've read, and is brilliantly written. Back at school, everyone is whispering about Emma, and she has no idea why. As far as she knows she simply got drunk and got off with the wrong bloke. Everyone seems to be blowing things massively out of proportion, something that she struggles with alongside her hangover, and some unexplained bruises and soreness in intimate areas. She simply assumes that the one man she remembers having had sex with liked it rough, in fact she is so concerned that she has upset people with her drunken behaviour that she sends texts to all of her 'friends' male and female checking to see if they are ok with her. The scenario of losing time due to drunkenness is an experience that the majority of young people will have at some point, what I sincerely hope that people don't have to experience is what happens next to Emma. Her brother gets in touch to tell her just how disgusted he is with her, it seems that images of her having sex has gone viral. A new facebook page has been set up in her name, this consists of nothing but images of her passed out while a group of men and boys use her in every way they could imagine. She is shown being fucked by all of the men, being degraded, being vomited and urinated on; really disgusting acts of abuse and degradation. Everyone at school has seen these images, in fact the friends of everyone has seen them and each person seems to have commented. Emma has been totally taken apart and used. When a complaint is made to the Guards by her school, leading to rape charges against the men involved, things spiral even further out of control. Emma's initial response is to try and deny that there is a problem, she doesn't want to be a victim, she doesn't want anyone to hate her and she has such sketchy memories of events that she can hardly believe that anything has happened. The court of public opinion is quick to come down on each side, with the majority of people in the town finding it easier to label Emma as a slut, asking to be used thanks to her clothing, behaviour and use of drink and drugs, than to see they boys as abusing rapists. They are 'nice boys really, things just got out of control' that is the attitude that Emma is met with. What did she expect if she chose to act like she did? The remainder of the novel comes one year after the gang rape. It shows how the attack and impending trial has destroyed Emma and the lives of her whole family. In fact the case has torn the whole community apart; due to the unusual impact of social media in the case it has drawn national media attention and is being seen as a precedent setting case creating even more pressure on Emma and her family.
The ending is both shocking and truly upsetting. As O'Neill points out in her afterword it is also tragically common. She makes no apology for the bleakness of the writing, and nor should she. It is dreadful to read and yet deeply important that the issues of consent, sexual behaviour and use of social media be discussed by young people living in the modern world. I would not suggest that this is suitable for younger teens, but at the same time kids do need to read shocking stories like this before they think about becoming sexually active, the subject makes for a difficult and painful read but is also groundbreaking and deserves to be something that is looked at both in schools and in society in general.

Noonday - Pat Barker

The third book in the series that started with Life Class and Toby's Room, this takes the story of the love triangle that is Elinor, Paul and Kit into middle age and into the horrors of London during the Blitz. Although this is the third book in the series there seems to be enough background provided to make it possible to read this as a standalone book. I really don't think that you would appreciate the depth of story and feeling should you choose to read it in this fashion. The ghosts from the earlier books certainly haunt this one.
While I did enjoy my experience of reading this, there were times when I found aspects of the story-telling grating in the extreme. The story arc involving Bertha Mason (not Mrs Rochester, but a hugely overweight clairvoyant) was fascinating but also deeply irritating at times. These sections seemed fragmented and I found them rather confusing, a distraction from the main story. Despite this the writing covering the experience of the Blitz is brilliantly executed. The terror and confusion is captured perfectly, as well as the near-total dislocation from normal life as the city became unrecognisable.
As you'd expect from this series issues around the artistic world do play a part in this story arc, with some discussion of the role of a war artist, as well as what was considered to be 'proper' subjects for artists of box sexes. Unlike the first two books in the series though, these considerations were very much on the background, a decision that I thought made sense considering the massive and devastating events against which this is set. In many ways, despite being set in the 1940s this is still a novel of the First World War, the continuing impact of the 1914-18 war is what has shaped all of the central characters. All of their actions have to be seen against the trauma of their experiences during WWI, it is fascinating to see the first war through the eyes of characters already shaped by and earlier conflict.
Despite it's flaws this is a book to read, and a worthy and satisfying conclusion to the series; it will be interesting to see if Pat Barker's next novel will also cover issues surrounding conflict now that she has so comprehensively looked at the impact of the First World War.

The Leopard - Giuseppe Tomasi Di Lampedusa

One that had been on my to read list for quite a while and now one of the Waterstones rediscovered classics, so expect bookshop staff to extolling it's virtues throughout September. If they do, then take them up on the chance to read it, because it really does deserve it's classic status. Set in Sicily in the period just after Risorgimento, unification for those of us not up on 19th century Italian history. It focuses on the family of Fabrizio, Prince of Salina who are experiencing the social shifts within the nation. The book captures the sense of a collapsing way of life quite brilliantly, something that is usually found in novels set in the post 1918 world. The scope of the central story is really rather small, the Prince's beloved nephew, Tancredi, falls in love with the daughter if a middle class family and dashes the romantic hopes of his cousin, Fabrizio's daughter Concetta. This intimate story is set in the context of Garibaldi's invasion of Italy and the political changes that occurred afterwards. These momentous changes impact on the main story and add to the poignancy of the final scenes set in 1883 and 1910.
What raises this novel out of the ordinary are the nuanced and totally believably flawed characters each one of which is beautifully written and which are set in a location that is captured to perfection. The underlying theme of collapse and mortality runs throughout the novel with the musings of the Prince on the subject of mortality forming the backdrop to several scenes. Not wanting to spoil the ending I'll just reiterate that I found it to be very poignant and moving. The novel really is a pleasure to read and it just seems a shame that there is so little other writing by Lampedusa available to be enjoyed.