Wednesday, 30 September 2015

Oh, O'Neill.

I have the world’s biggest girl crush on Louise O’Neill. There. I said it. We’ve got that out of the way, it’s out there in the blogosphere for all to see (and she can now act on it in whatever way she chooses)…
So this piece is less of a book review, more like a ‘why you must love this woman as much as I do’ piece. I can’t even call it an ‘author appreciation’ piece, because yes I do adore her writing style and her two outstanding YA Fiction books, but damn it I also adore her for her, the person she is and all the awesome things she does.
  
But yeah, let’s start with books.
Louise O’Neill (in my mind I have started to call her Oneilllo, as that’s her Twitter handle and Twitter is my chosen means of stalking/communicating with her) has written two novels: Only Ever Yours and Asking For It.
Only Ever Yours tells the tale of women in a futuristic and oppressive misogynistic world. As in, misogyny is the norm. This is a world where females are not born, they are designed. They are not raised in a family environment, they are trained and brought up by professional Chastity women in a special school. They will leave this school aged sixteen as Companions, Concubines, or Chastities.
Companions are chosen and wed by the sons of the richest and most powerful men in the outside world (the world they have never seen, beyond the confines of their school), and they do their household duties and give birth to as many sons as their partner requires. They are then ‘terminated’ when they reach forty years of age and so are deemed ugly and useless.
Concubines are the ‘bits on the side’; women who answer the filthy calls of men twenty-four hours a day. Every call, every desire and every fetish. Often these men have Companions at home, but that’s obviously not enough for them.
Chastities, finally, are the women who raise the designed females in the schools. They have shaved heads and dark robes, and are repulsive to look at and relentlessly stern.
Only Ever Yours follows Freida, one of the soon-to-be graduates of the school, on her journey through her final few months being taught and trained before the Ceremony in which she and her classmates will be put on their future paths of Companion, Concubine or Chastity. She is wrapped up in drama; the treacherous Megan meddling in her affairs and governing the group of girls, her ex-bestie Isabel pulling away from her and seeming strange, and… A guy showing interest in her.
I picked up on so many clever little details that O’Neill had put into this book. Subtle little suggestions. For instance, I immediately noticed that women’s names did not begin with a capital letter. Men’s did. They worshipped one man, The Father, like they would a god. Also, feminist was used once as an insult, a dirty word, because one girl piped up and claimed that personality mattered just as much as looks… She was incorrect. In this world, looks are everything.
Something else that I was fascinated by was the description of what happened when the schoolgirls in the novel had their ePads and ePhones revoked for a week – and thus their social media privileges (their main social site being the perfectly-named MyFace) were gone. For seven whole days. The girls went crazy; they were suddenly constantly talking to one another, over one another, needing to share every detail of what they were doing or what they were thinking, or what outfit they wanted to wear that day. This plot point felt like a comment on the role social media plays in our lives today…
I was fortunate enough to meet Louise O’Neill when she, Lisa Williamson (author of The Art Of Being Normal, another breakthrough Young Adult Fiction novel) and David Levithan (author of about a dozen Young Adult Fiction novels, e.g. Two Boys Kissing and Every Day, all of them outstanding and groundbreaking) came to Waterstones Piccadilly for a talk and a signing. I somehow worked up the nerve to raise my hand and ask a question – my voice wobbled and I was drenched in anxious sweat, but still… I asked Louise, and of course invited the other authors to add in their own opinions, about the social media plot point she made. I think my nervous wobbly voice said into that huge obnoxious handheld microphone: ‘Is this what you think of social media? It’s damaging and all-consuming…?’
Louise immediately chuckled and admitted she didn’t necessarily feel that way, calling herself a ‘Twitter fiend’ – which to be honest, we @Oneilllo fans really appreciate. After all, she tweets some real gems – queries about Tinder dates, some drunk musings and screenshots of chats with her parents. She also responds to every mention she receives, which is so darn lovely and a major win for we readers/fangirls. Even if I only knew her from Twitter and hadn’t met her and been bowled over by her slick wicked ways in person, I would still be desperate to be her best friend (or at least weekday drinking buddy). 

Asking For It is another outstanding book. Outstanding, and also horrifically brutal. It’s a book you read with gritted teeth, an unsettled stomach and (in my case) tears streaming endlessly down your face. As you may be able to tell from the title, this is a story about rape. Rape, and the aftermath for a woman.
It’s summer time in a tiny town in Ireland. Emma O’Donovan is a popular, beautiful and confident eighteen year-old having fun with her friends and always receiving attention from the boys. Then one night she attends a party with her friends and the boys. The next morning, she wakes up on her front porch sunburnt and bleeding and has no idea what happened or how she got there. Everyone else knows. Soon the angry texts and abusive anonymous messages are flooding in, and she finds herself tagged in a series of explicit and horrific photos on social media. She was raped at the party. Gang-raped. She was completely off her face on drink and drugs, and dressed to kill, so that makes the majority of people claim she was, well, asking for it.
It doesn’t help that the boys who put her through this were some of the town’s sporting heroes, who had just won a game before the party and all had glorious futures ahead of them. Emma is extremely apprehensive to call them out for what they did, because she thinks doing so would mean she would be ‘ruining their lives’. Also, she’d be upsetting a lot of families close to hers. But she’s made the decision to press charges.
Louise O’Neill’s style of writing in this book was just next level perfect. She captured the pain and struggles present in the story, she made her readers really feel for this poor girl. The worst/best part was that it was so…real.
Honestly, some parts were so hard to get through without dry-heaving or screaming into a pillow.
Sometimes all it took was the same few words being repeated again and again as the story progressed (I cannot ever get the words ‘splayed legs, pink flesh’ out of my mind now). I was right inside this poor girl’s head. I was suffering with her.
When I finished the book I mopped up my tears, resisted the urge to throw the book across the room, gave it a five star review on Goodreads, and recommended it to every single one of my friends. As we speak, my neighbour Amy is reading it and I’m waiting for her to text me in the unique state of distress and awe that I was overcome with when reading.
Asking For It is one of those books that is of the utmost importance to this generation; hell, every generation. There is not a single person who could not benefit from reading it. Someday this book will be studied in schools (when the world has finally dealt with ‘rape culture’, and by ‘dealt with’ I mean well and truly obliterated it once and for all). The hashtag #NotAskingForIt will be written on placards and shouted in protests, and finally everyone will realise that rape does not happen because of what a person is wearing, or how much he/she’s had to drink, no. Rape happens because of rapists. End of.
O’Neill wrote in the Afterword to this novel that she and friends had discussed their own experiences of not consenting over drinks, as though it was something every woman goes through as a rite of passage. I’ll be honest here, I’ve had my own experiences, and I hate that so many other women have suffered as I have, and some much much worse. This must not, cannot, continue. I personally feel that Louise will help us fight against what is currently ‘the norm’ and should really not be even a distant idea.
Louise O’Neill is fast becoming the perfect, articulate and brilliantly loud voice for women’s rights. She is supporting the Dublin Rape Crisis Centre and their Ask Consent campaign, she and Lisa Williamson posted pics supporting the LGBT charity Stonewall and their #NoBystanders campaign, and of course she started the hashtag #NotAskingForIt. She’s doing all of the speaking, having all the meetings – the other day was The Bookseller’s YA Conference and recently she jetted of to NY and the film rights of Only Ever Yours were bought. Wow.
The papers and mags cannot get enough of her; the Guardian called her “the best YA fiction writer alive today”, Bustle said she is “about to be the name on everyone’s lips”, the Sunday Independent called her a “tour de force”…plus, every magazine ever (Inis, Red, Image, Sunday Business Post, The Journal, OH C’MON I COULD GO ON) is chattering about the excellent Asking For It; recommending it to their readers and naming it Book of the Month, etc.
Yeah, she’s a big deal.
  
I was fortunate enough to get in touch with this fantastical woman, via my usual means of constant tweets packed with admiration and affection, plus a healthy (and not subtle) helping of fan girl squeals. For some reason, she saw fit to send me her author email address, and I was able to ask just a couple of burning questions:
When was that moment when you realised you simply had to write Asking For It?
There were a number of different incidents that inspired ASKING FOR IT. The Todd Aiken remarks about “legitimate rape” was one, and the Steubenville and Maryville cases in the US were obviously hugely influential. But it was after the ‘Slane Girl’ case here in Ireland (in which a teenage girl was caught on camera performing oral sex on a number of boys at a concert and vilified in the media afterwards) that made me determined to explore the attitudes towards female sexuality and how that ties in to rape culture.
What is the best compliment you have ever received, writing or personal?
There was a girl with learning difficulties in my class in primary school and I always had a soft spot for her. Her mother told me recently how much that meant to their family, and that they all felt more at ease knowing there was someone who was looking out for her when they couldn’t. I didn’t think anything of it at the time but it’s funny how something that seems like so little to me had greater ramifications for other people. Being told that you’re inherently kind is probably the greatest compliment a person can receive.
What did you take from the ‘New Day New Normal’ tour, which took place in three venues across the UK with fellow authors David Levithan and Lisa Williamson?
I loved the New Day New Normal tour! I’m such a fan of David Levithan and Lisa Williamson, I think they are doing something really special with their work and are changing how young adults see their LGBTQ peers. To be associated with them in any way was a huge honour.
Well, there you go. This woman is a goddess, and all of you will soon fall head-over-heels as I did. I’m very happy to have had the chance to get some questions answered – but I may still require a drinks date with you someday, Louise.

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