This novel caught my attention when I read a review about in The Observer. Set in a fictional town in County Cork, you’ll find a group of Leaving Cert students drinking (a lot), experimenting with drugs and constantly partying (which usually includes unprotected sex and/or sexualised behaviour). Here you will find Emma, the central character, who is gang-raped at a party by some local young men known to her. She was taken advantage of when heavily drunk and after taking a synthetic drug. And her defilement didn’t stop there. In the days that followed, her perpetrators posted graphic photographs of her on social media which were seen by her friends and family. Scandal descends upon the small community. Emma becomes the prime focus of malicious gossip and social media trolls post many vile comments.
The book captures emotions in a very profound way. The reader feels Emma’s pain and sense of hopelessness. The ‘death’ of Emma is shown in powerful measure. We see a vibrant and beautiful young woman shrink into a lost soul, filled with self-hatred, guilt and shame. We see the impact that her rape has on her relationship with her parents and brother. Her father can barely look at her. Her mother, who lightens the dark tone of the book by coming across as a typical Irish ‘mammy’, is nevertheless under terrible emotional strain, ‘If only I could afford the comfort of a nervous breakdown’ and turns to alcohol for solace. Her older brother becomes fiercely protective of her and in some ways feels displaced remorse for not having taken better care of her. In the end, Emma becomes a recluse (only leaving the house for weekly visits to a counsellor she dislikes) and reliant on anti-depressants. She shuns all her former friends because she believes she is solely responsible for what happened to her.
Although a quick, gritty and well written book it’s not without faults. In the beginning, I found it a little difficult to get hooked into the story but I’m glad I persevered because suddenly it seemed to get better and continued in this vein until the end. Once the alleged perpetrators were arrested and awaiting trial, the national media picked up on the story (I considered this highly unlikely). Even the parish priest preached from the pulpit about the probable innocence of the young men involved (even more unlikely). Novels of course are all about fiction and artistic licence to deviate from events in real life but I felt O’Neill perhaps overstretched some points in the book that readers might find a little too incredulous to accept.
But notwithstanding these minor criticisms, I found it an excellent novel that I’m glad I read. I highly recommend that you add it to your reading list because it will enlighten you to current Irish youth culture and their attitudes towards sex, consent and the role played by alcohol and drugs. But more than anything else it will take you deep into the loneliness and isolation felt by this young rape victim, who is emotionally destroyed by what happened – although the book ends with a tiny flicker of hope that she may somehow rebuild her life. The Observer’s review stated that the book was originally published as a young adult novel – although its current edition is aimed at mainstream readership. Either way, it will stimulate thought and discussion in various age groups and cultural settings about a taboo subject that is ever present in our society.
© Declan Henry