From Bosnia to Boko Haram, Edna O'Brien's 'Girl' gives voices to women of war
The author was inspired by the stories of 276 schoolgirls taken from their homes in Nigeria
In the opening scene of Edna O’Brien’s latest novel, militants burst into the girls’ dormitory of a school in an unspecified Nigerian town to abduct pupils and take them to a detention camp. “I was a girl once,” reads the first line, “but not any more.” And thus begins the most harrowing tale of survival you will read all year.
The militant Islamist group Boko Haram grabbed international headlines back in 2014 when it abducted 276 Christian schoolgirls in Chibok, Nigeria, who were then forced to convert to Islam and marry their kidnappers. The search for the victims kickstarted the global Bring Back Our Girls campaign. The outlines of this novel’s plot are inspired by their real-life stories.
O’Brien, now in her eighties, was inspired to write the novel after reading a newspaper report about a girl found wandering in the Sambisa forest in Nigeria. She had escaped from the militants along with her baby but had lost her mind. O’Brien then made two exhaustive trips to the country to meet others who had escaped, hearing about their horrifying experiences.
The late Toni Morrison said the function of freedom is to free someone else. On that account, O’Brien’s well-researched novel is a valiant logistic and stylistic feat.
Our protagonist, Maryam, gives a first-person account of her journey from innocent teenager to traumatised mother. The narrative alternates between hallucinatory vignettes and jolting accounts that perfectly encapsulate the shock and disbelief of a young person witnessing barbarism up close.
The victims are subjected to one horror after another in the detention camp, which – in a self-assured move by the author – are described with economy. A lesser writer would have mined every ounce of pathos from the adversity they face.
Maryam’s voice is resolutely detached and ethereal. That lends her account a certain timelessness, also echoed in the book’s title, since atrocities against women have been carried out since time immemorial. References to modern-day items such as mobile phones and the drones that comb the skies are all that tether this story to a particular time and place.
In a novel in which the protagonist is subjected to some of the vilest acts that could be done to a human physically and mentally, it is a testament to O’Brien’s writing prowess that the book still manages to be consistently engrossing. Just when descriptions of the barbarity inch towards being gratuitous, O’Brien skilfully ratchets up the pace and flips the narrative into a dramatic survival story of an escaped abductee dealing with the aftermath of trauma.
Maryam, along with Babby, her newborn, manages to escape from the camp with her friend Buki. The powerplay of their relationship is succinctly drawn, which brings to mind Cait and Baba from O’Brien’s The Country Girls trilogy.
Trenchant dissection of the universal relationship dynamics between females, whether in Ireland or Nigeria, continues to be O’Brien’s forte. Maryam’s sudden transition into motherhood and her ambivalent feelings towards Babby, from resentment to ferocious protectiveness, are conveyed with equal veracity. In one of the most piercing lines of the book, Maryam justifies herself to Babby by saying: “I am not old enough to be your mother.”
Girl gives an unflinching and harrowing account of what might have transpired in the life of the few Chibok schoolgirls who survived Boko Haram’s captivity but continued to be prisoners of their own private hell because of the trauma to which they had been subjected. Who better to write about the grim realities women endure than O’Brien, who has been fearless in her depiction of women’s intimate lives since her debut in 1960. Since the 1990s, however, O’Brien’s focus as a writer seems to have tilted into a more political sphere, echoed by her previous book The Little Red Chairs, which was about the atrocities of the Bosnian civil war. Girls, rumoured to be her final novel, manages to be both intensely personal and urgently timely.
The second half of the novel deals with Maryam’s homecoming to her barely recognisable family. On her return to Chibok, Maryam is told by her mother that her father has died, a realisation she made after he stopped chanting the name of his missing daughter in his sleep. The ways in which the schoolgirls’ kidnapping slowly eats away at their families and erodes their dynamics is portrayed with heart-rending poignance.
Back in Chibok, Maryam finds accidental celebrity and is paraded in front of the president and the nation on television as a heroine. While watching the president deliver an impassioned yet jingoistic speech, Maryam privately scoffs: “You have not been there. You cannot know what was done to us. You live by power and we by powerlessness.”
How do you live on Earth after you have endured hell?
The takeaway from this empathic work of fiction is that there is no safe haven for the Chibok schoolgirls, who have escaped captivity but struggle to break free from the shackles of psychological trauma.
Girl, searing and tender in equal measure, reaffirms what the American writer Rebecca Solnit said about injustice against women: “Violence doesn’t have a race, a class, a religion or a nationality, but it does have a gender.”
Updated: September 27, 2019 12:13 PM