Read: October 2023
I’ve had a run of average 3 star reads lately that lacked anything to truly grip me. Idol finally broke that streak, I blew through it in a few days! It had me up too late and I finished it off on a Saturday morning which is a sure sign of a good book!
I read Asking For It by Louise O’Neill many years ago (in my School Librarian days) and still think about it. It took inspiration from the real life Steubenville rape case but set the story in Ireland, and told from the perspective of the victim who struggles to label what happened to her as rape, and internalises the shame and blame. It is heart-breaking. That was one of the most emotionally difficult books I’ve ever read, and it really felt like reading about a real life experience.
Idol isn’t quite as harrowing, although it does very much touch on issues of consent and rape it is less graphic, and instead focuses the story from the point of view of the accused. Sam is a successful “wellness” influencer/grifter who, after being accused of rape by her childhood best friend, must scramble to save her career in the age of trial by social media. She is an immediately unsympathetic character and the story peels back her many layers (and issues) until we get to the (unsurprising truth) at the centre of the story.
Sam is an unreliable point of view, and you know I love an unreliable narrator! Although I will say that the truth behind the mystery won’t come as a surprise, it was fun to get to read between the lines and try to see Sam from the outside. She is both a victim and a villain; she is at times vulnerable but also a ruthless manipulator. I loved that messy complexity.
The story really plays with memory and how it can be manipulated and become unreliable. Sam’s version of events is often at odds with others, and she has a tendency towards rewriting history as fuel for gaslighting those around her. It’s interesting to me because I’ve also just finished Animal Farm and am currently listening to the audiobook of 1984, both of course by George Orwell. Both stories have governments that control their subjects through quite literally rewriting history as it suited their changing agendas. Sam uses a remarkably similar tactic to control her friends, family, followers and even herself.
I found the writing gripping, and I enjoyed the complexity of Sam and the many uncomfortable layers of the situation made it feel realistic. I am not giving it five stars because I did in the end feel that it suffered a little from the lack of clear characterisation for Lisa, and also Josh. They are the focus of Sam’s obsessions yet they exist in the novel as rather fuzzy sketches. On the one hand I can see this is symptom of Sam’s point of view but on the other I think it made for a slightly less satisfying rounded-out story.
If you are can handle the subject matter of rape and coercive control then I recommend Idol, and also Asking For It but that one does come with extreme trigger warnings! Louise O’Neill is very talented at tackling these difficult subjects in such a nuance way way that it feels uncomfortably real. I should check out other other novels at some point.