Themes: justice, gender, rape culture, social media
Narrative style: first-person present tense; structurally separated into ‘last year’ and ‘this year’ (although all is expressed in present tense)
This is a punchily-written contemporary novel which explores the lead up to and aftermath of a gang rape of a teen girl at a party. Reviews all describe it using words like ‘unflinching’ and ‘brave’ and it has won and been nominated for a slew of awards, because it is an important book, published just before the recent stream of scandals that have hit Hollywood and caused people to discuss sexual behaviour again. This book is the perfect way to bring about that discussion with teens, as it is a great story which is not at all ‘preachy’, but alarmingly realistic in its presentation of people’s ‘shades of grey’ reactions.
I personally think it’s a stroke of genius that the main character is a ‘queen bee’ type and very definitely written to be unlikable – and yet once the rape has happened, I am firmly on her side. The pacing and use of point of view, particularly since Emma does not remember the event itself and must piece it together from things other tell her (and social media), are especially strong factors in the book’s crafting. It’s an absolute masterclass in addressing social issues through fiction, and that’s why the teaching activity for this post is a writing-based one.
Here is a set of prompts for analysis on the first five pages, which are shared on the Irish Times website (but, again, I would also recommend buying a copy for your classroom/school library/self). I intend this as a practice task for working with a style model for the Original Writing part of the English Language NEA. Obviously, this extract is longer than students are permitted to write, but it helps them to get into the language and content of the text more if they can see a little more of it.
- Which tense is used (and why)?
- How does O’Neill create a picture of Emma’s mother as unreasonable?
- find some relevant quotations and then identify the linguistic features used to craft this impression. How is this constructed?
- How is dialogue presented?
- Look at all the examples of dialogue and identify the tags/quotatives (speech verbs) used. Why is it done this way?
- Examine the longer paragraph (‘The door closes behind her… jerking her head at me.’ p.6-7).
- Why is this set of ideas presented in this way? What is the purpose of this block of text? How is this section different from the rest – in content and in style (features)?
- What other features of this extract do you find interesting/effective in setting up this novel?
Use what you’ve observed to write your own YA novel opening in which you set up the characters and setting, making sure to similarly make the social context clear: family, social status, pressures on the character etc.