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Tuesday, 6 March 2018

Reviewing Louise O'Neill


In 2015 I discovered this novel in my sixth form's library called 'Only Ever Yours.' I picked it up, thinking it looked vaguely interesting, and did not expect how much I would obsessive over it and how it consumed me. I was so bowled over by this incredible novel that I emailed the lovely Irish author telling her how much I had adored it, and she emailed me back (yay!) in a brief series of emails. I became super excited for her next novel 'Asking for It', which I thought was good but horribly upsetting. Her latest book came out days ago and I finished it yesterday. This is a post all about my take on the works of Louise O'Neill. Note: may contain spoilers.

Only Ever Yours

This book is set in a dystopia where girls no longer exist and are made in a factory to look 'perfect.' They are raised in a special School aged 4 to 16, and when they become 16 they are selected by boys to become their companion (wife), concubine (prostitute), or chastity (nun), the latter meaning they will remain in the School and look after the next lot of girls. This story is told in first person through the eyes of frieda (the girl's names are all written with lower case letters and the boy's with capital letters, showing the insignificance of the girls next to the boys).

frieda is in her final year, but is worried about her best friend isabel. isabel and frieda have been close since they both set foot in the School, but isabel has recently stopped caring about her looks; she's been stuffing herself with junk food, not exercising, and not taking their future fate seriously. isabel is clearly very kind and depressed, and it's revealed at the end of the story why she is like this. There is definitely a bit of 'jealousy' on frieda's part; she is very insecure and clearly has always been envious of her best friend due to how effortlessly 'perfect' isabel seems, and how all the chastities have always loved her and she's always been voted the most beautiful out of all the girls. I can definitely relate to that as there have been times in my life where other girls have made wistful-verging-on-snide comments about my intelligence, my hair, my ambition/work ethic, or how 'slim' I seem compared to them. I know I've also compared myself to other girls; wishing I looked older, was taller, was curvier, and looked more like so-and-so. It's a very unhealthy thing that unfortunately girls tend to do a lot with one another.

Girls judge each other and compare each other's looks, and in this School are taught to see each other as competition for the attention of men. It's a perfect metaphor for how women can be in society, obsessing over looking perfect and body image. The girls are all expected to be super skinny and good girls who do as their told (it's sickening but ingeniously written). I relate to frieda a lot because she's a people pleaser, she's a worrier and over-thinker, and she hangs out with this horrible group of girls and their ringleader megan (takes me right back to primary school). She also suffers from insomnia like me. When one of the boys (Darwin - the boys are all named after strong real-life male figures) takes a shine to her, she feels like there's a way out and is sure he'll pick her to be his companion, only she unintentionally messes things up. The ending is extremely dark and sad, I may have cried but can't remember. I like frieda because I understand she is someone who tries to do the right thing and who wants to make people happy, but ends up messing things up or getting into trouble.

It's an incredibly gripping book and is tough to put down, and is written with such a brutal style. You're desperate for frieda to live happily ever after and for isabel to befriend her again and for her to walk off into the sunset with Darwin, but I think if that had happened the book wouldn't have had the same impact.

Asking for it

This book again is extremely dark, but because it's more realistic I found it very upsetting and tough to read. I was in a very bad place when I read this book; I was at York Uni in my second term (shortly before I dropped out) and while reading this book an incident happened where I was very drunk and ran away from my friends when we were out and wanted to drown myself and lay down in a part of the river. I won't go into heavy detail and of course I don't blame the book; I was already upset and reading such a depressing tale just fuelled the fire. (One of my flatmates after advised I read the Harry Potter series which cheered me up. I'd seen all the films but had never read all the books besides the couple my mum read to my brother and I as kids).

'Asking for it' is about a really popular and beautiful girl named Emma O'Donovan who isn't super nice - I wouldn't say she's horrible but she isn't sweet and wholesome. She doesn't seem like someone I'd befriend in real life. The story starts off in a fairly comfortable setting - Emma hangs out with her friends, goes to parties, and has sex with lots of different guys and then brags about it after, although something seems a little off like she just does it to feel wanted or to please the guys. Anyway, at this party she takes MDMA and then wakes up passed out on her doorstep.

She finds pictures of herself all over Facebook wearing little - perhaps naked - and the boys at the party are all peeing on her and taking it in turns to rape her. It's beyond disgusting and very difficult to read. But what I found awful most of all was everyone's reaction - her brother is my favourite character and is the only one who seems really appalled. Everyone else seems to blame her for it; her mum gets angry and acts like she's ruined their reputation for something that absolutely was not her fault. This was not a grey area - if you see someone off their face on a drug and they're clearly in a bad state, you make sure they get home safe. You don't take awful humiliating pictures of them and rape them.

What's also bad is none of the boys that I can remember seemed like nasty people, yet they went and did such a nasty thing to her. I've only read this book once whereas I think I've read OEY two or three times so I can't remember it as well because it was too upsetting. The one thing I'll say about this book - and this is more a comment on the form than the content - is I think the last section went on for too long. Absolutely shows how distraught Emma is and how her life has been ruined, not to mention the boys got away free because apparently there was 'no evidence' to convict them. But from a literary point I feel it went on for too long and could have had several hundred words easily cut out to stop it seeming long-winded towards the end. Other than that it was very powerful and I would like to read it again, but would have to be in a good headspace.

Almost Love

Her latest and I would say my most favourite. This one doesn't end sadly, it has more of a 'hopeful' ending. We have another very insecure and people-pleasing protagonist named Sarah Fitzpatrick, a woman in her twenties who is an Art teacher. In terms of form, this one is cool because it jumps back and forwards in time between Sarah in third person and in first.

In the present day, Sarah is engaged to this lovely kind man Oisin, yet she is horrible to him throughout; she snaps at him, nags him, puts him down and treats him like shit. Looking at the context of the story this is understandable; Sarah is extremely codependent and fell for Oisin, expecting him to be her source of happiness. As we should all know, a person CANNOT be your source of happiness and should not be expected to be so. Once he stops 'making her happy', she starts being cruel to him. I also think her cruelty is from a part of her that doesn't believe she deserves to be with someone who is kind to her.

In the flashbacks we get more context; Sarah began an affair with a much older man who was the father of one of her students at her school. His name was Matthew Brennan, and Matthew is an interesting character. Louise's books are not black and white; it would be easy for us readers to say 'Matthew is a dickhead who uses her and doesn't care', but I don't think that was her intention. Matthew simply saw Sarah and his relationship as fun, casual sex, and she viewed it as more serious than it was. She became infatuated with him, something I definitely relate to as in the past I've become infatuated with male friends of mine who haven't seen me as anything more, or with past boyfriends after a break up. It's no one's fault, you simply have to learn that it will pass and you don't 'love' the person, you just want to feel wanted.

Matthew does take advantage of Sarah's extreme insecurity and neediness, but in turn she isn't just some innocent victim; she is addicted to being desired by him, and could have broken things off if she was unhappy but chose not to. She stayed being his sexual partner, thinking in her head that they would become something more and thinking she was madly in love with him. In their last conversation she says "I want to take care of you" and he rightly says "you're too young to understand what that means." She never loved him; when he tried to open up to her about his personal life she completely dismissed him and went behind his back to look through his private things at his house.

I don't personally view any of these three protagonists as particularly unlikeable. Mark Renton and Steven Stelfox are unlikeable, but these women are relatable and flawed. I don't think Sarah is a nasty evil person, I just think she is very insecure, becomes trapped in a headspace that I can completely understand and have been in before, and it takes her a while to realise that she can't just depend on a man for her happiness. Happiness comes from within, and a relationship is supposed to be about equal footing - any kind of relationship, including friendships - and she can't see the people in her life as pawns for her to dump her baggage on. She's been through a lot; her mother died at a young age and her father coped by drinking. Sarah needs to learn to stand on her own two feet and love herself and stop trying to make someone else love her or 'look after' her. I think by the end of the story when she moves back with her dad, there is hope that she will look for ways to better herself and hopefully focus on what makes her happy like her artistic ambitions.
Mine, mine and mine.
Conclusion

Voila! Thanks for reading! I can't recommend this woman's books enough; she is very talented and her books despite their heavy content are 'light' reads; they're straight to the point and direct and can be read very quickly. I'm excited for her new book coming out in May which is a (sigh) feminist retelling of The Little Mermaid. But feminist or not, if it's written by Louise O'Neill I know it will be worth a read. Hooray! (And a big hooray because she's in London on the 15th of March and I'm going to meet her).

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Louise_O%27Neill

https://www.irishtimes.com/culture/books/almost-love-by-louise-o-neill-ample-genius-but-scant-joy-1.3406085

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