This novel is strikingly brave in two ways: first, in the fortitude of its writer, the redoubtable Edna O’Brien, who, aged 88, travelled twice to northern Nigeria, her bra stuffed with thousands of dollars, in order to research this story. With some irony, she ended up staying in a convent with kindly nuns who helped introduce her to its subject: the girls kidnapped by Boko Haram in 2014.
Second, the way, in these days of cultural appropriation, that O’Brien takes on the persona of a very young (she doesn’t know how old she is) kidnapped African girl, Maryam. But this book is at its core a misery memoir about the dreadful things done to women and girls in the name of religion. It’s hardly an area O’Brien can’t lay claim to.
Maryam is kidnapped, raped, married off, impregnated, gives birth and escapes. And then everything gets notably worse. This is a short sharp shock of a book, which cascades with the odd logic of a dream. People wander on, appear out of nowhere and get killed randomly and often. By page seven there is already a girl with her tongue cut out, ‘seeping with blood… shaking uncontrollably’. So be warned: it is not fun and not for the squeamish.
The writing, though, is propulsive; the scenes short, angry and compelling. This is occasionally to Girl’s detriment: sometimes the urgency of the intruding voices, all telling their stories, means that the characters exist only to suffer, horribly and repeatedly.
O’Brien has worked hard to get inside the psyches of terribly damaged children — and the character of Maryam can seem rather flat as a result. Although this is undoubtedly psychologically accurate, Girl is not an essay, it’s a novel. Maryam suffers, but she doesn’t always live in the way, for example, Colson Whitehead’s Nickel Boys force themselves into rude existence beyond the confines of the page.
But there is so much fire in O’Brien’s writing: the dust an ‘infinity of rising glitter’; midwives tearing a placenta to pieces; snake-bitten legs like black rotten posts. When Maryam finally makes it back to her mother’s house, she finds that being kidnapped has shamed the family:
Her [Maryam’s mother’s] face had turned to stone. I thought of the stone fonts in the churches with the small crevice to dip one’s finger in. I cannot dip my finger into my mother’s heart, ever more. Everything inside me is breaking up. I want to hurt her, and wipe her face in each grotesque and horrifying thing done to me. I fear her. I hate her. I have a baby. I miss her. I want her heartbeat next to mine.
In the end, it is the sheer beauty of O’Brien’s prose that makes this novel superb: the universality and the care with which she has always written about all women — girls, daughters and mothers — wherever they come from, and whoever they are.
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