Trigger warning: the book being reviewed here includes rape as a major plot element
All the Rage by Courtney Summers is an unsettling book to read, for a number of reasons. For one thing, the structure is confusing, with the narrative jumping from present to past and back again. The main reason for describing it that way, however, is obviously the subject matter; the main character, Romy, was raped and then disbelieved when she told people, and now she is continually ostracised by her community. It’s not cheery stuff.
There was never any doubt in my mind that Romy was telling the truth about what happened to her, even though the reader does have to piece some of the story together. So the vile response of her high school peers is particularly horrible; Romy is basically bullied for “lying” about her rape, because the rapist was the town sherif’s son, a popular boy who everyone seems to believe completely. Confusingly, he doesn’t actually appear in the book, which does make the blurb seem a bit misleading. As we get to know Romy, she’s been dealing with this for a year, and is understandably brittle and angry; her isolation is acute and only slightly self-imposed. It’s hard to know the extent to which she was like this before her attack, or whether she adopted these traits as a defence mechanism.
What happens to Romy day-to-day at school is really unpleasant to read, and I clung to the belief that this was exaggerated and wouldn’t happen in real life; sadly, although I work in a school where I genuinely believe this wouldn’t be replicated, I do also watch the news so I’m aware that my faith in mankind is often misplaced.
I’ve read a couple of responses to All the Rage on Goodreads, so I know that this book has provoked a strong response from readers whose personal experience makes them relate to Romy’s, which confirms my view that Summers tells this story in a convincing way. It’s hard-hitting and pulls no punches, but how could a book like this pull any punches and still have an impact? The after-effects of what Romy has endured and continues to endure are evident even when she’s describing something completely different; even in wondering if it’s going to rain “or maybe it’s just being a tease,” we see the extent to which Romy has internalised the vocabulary of rape denial. At various points, when thinking about a pregnant acquaintance, Romy hopes that the baby isn’t a girl, because she knows all too well what girls can be forced to endure. There’s something really tragic about that.
The subject matter means All the Rage draws inevitable comparisons with Asking for It, Louise O’Neill’s superlative and deeply, deeply upsetting novel about a teenage girl who is subjected to rape by multiple men and then humiliated publicly. I don’t think there’s any particular benefit to comparing the books and their respective merits; playing one off against the other when both ought to be read would be ridiculous. I feel really strongly that both these novels are deeply necessary, forcing the reader to keep thinking about them long after finishing.
I don’t know the inspiration behind All the Rage, but it’s hard to imagine that it hasn’t been written in response to news coverage of high-profile sexual assault cases; both Summers’ book and Asking for It become depressingly more relevant every time I read the news. Even the now widely used phrase “rape culture” seems to hint at an acceptance of rape; calling it a “culture” codifies and legitimises it, and I do not want to live in a society where that’s ok. For these reasons, I hope All the Rage is widely read; it asks questions which need to be asked and, crucially, doesn’t try to offer easy answers.