In April 2014, 276 students at a secondary school in Chibok, in the remote north-east of Nigeria, were kidnapped by militants from the jihadist group Boko Haram. All were teenage girls. Their abduction, once it reached the international news agenda, led to the high-profile campaign Bring Back Our Girls. Intermittently, some of the girls escaped or were released after being brutalised and defiled: forced to convert to Islam if they were not already Muslim; forced to marry their captors.
Some of the girls contracted HIV; some had babies. Many have never been located. Kidnappings of schoolchildren in this part of Nigeria have continued over the past five years, with victims as young as nine being snatched from families, communities and education.
Edna O’Brien, whose novels depicting the frequently grim realities of girls’ and women’s lives have been provoking and delighting readers since The Country Girls (1960), has moved determinedly into a more political arena since the mid-1990s, relinquishing her habitual autobiographical writings for fiction based on hard, often unpalatable fact. In The Little Red Chairs (2015), a Balkan war criminal disguised as a faith healer beguiles and disrupts the inhabitants of an Irish village with grievous results.
O’Brien’s compact and fearsome new novel Girl moves into geographically vastly different but emotionally similar territory. It is based on first-hand interviews during her visits to Nigeria (no mean feat for someone in their late eighties) with doctors, psychiatrists, NGOs and, most importantly, survivors of Boko Haram, “all with stories to tell, but restrained by their reserve and delicacy” and all acknowledged at the end of the book. Girl turns the composite experience of the captured Nigerian schoolgirls into the story of one individual.
Maryam is the narrator’s name — although we do not learn this until well into the novel, when she is meeting for the first time the husband she has been coerced into marrying. In the book’s abrupt opening, she announces herself thus: “I was a girl once, but not any more. I smell. Blood dried and crusted all over me, and my wrapper in shreds. Hurled through the forest that I saw, that first awful night, when I and my friends were snatched from the school.”
Maryam is bearing witness from the beginning. O’Brien’s prose is as unwaveringly assured as ever (“I both died and did not die” is Maryam’s description of undergoing gang rape) yet its customary operatic style is toned down. We are left with the bare, ghastly details of human endurance, from Maryam’s daily handling and cooking of maggot-infested animals to feed the camp, to the public, prolonged stoning to death for alleged adultery of the wife of the chief emir, buried up to her neck in a pit: “The stones were coming pell-mell, falling monstrously on what was once the most legendary face in the enclave.”
The depravity of certain scenes and the commodiousness with which they are rendered have aspects of the retelling of myth (one of the epigraphs to the novel is a quote from Euripides’ The Trojan Women). Yet we are jolted into the necessary reminder that this is the present day: references to the mobile phones that document the girls’ distress; the boastfulness of social media; drones operated by the army.
Earlier atrocities come to mind too: after they are seized and loaded on to trucks, the girls throw down objects such as combs and scraps of paper with their names written on, just as deportees to Nazi concentration camps, rammed into cattle cars, flung down postcards in the hope they might reach the relatives they would never see again.
In Girl, O’Brien’s concern is both extreme trauma with its complicated aftermath and, however improbable, survival. Maryam’s account (conveyed in a hidden notebook) of her ordeal is both succinctly detached — “we are on the rim of existence” — and wildly hallucinatory. At one point, she envisages her family massacred in front of her; at another, she pictures knifing to death a man who is assaulting her. Nature, especially trees, is registered as “a vile embrace” or imbued with protective spirits, depending on the given moment.
After an eternity of suffering (and somehow only 60 pages in), Maryam escapes from the camp. By now she has had a child, a girl whose birth is greeted with “fury” by her captors: a boy would have made a promising jihadi.
Maryam’s ambivalence towards the baby is acutely drawn: only much later, when, having been saved from starvation by a group of nomadic cattle herders and authenticated as “one of the schoolgirls” by a military outpost whose eccentric commander insists on reading to her from Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations, does Maryam instinctively develop a fierce protectiveness towards her child.
She needs to, for her torment is far from over. The second half of the book deals with Maryam’s dubious celebrity: paraded before the country’s president as an example of the success of the government’s much-criticised response to the kidnapping of the girls, followed by a bleak homecoming to her unrecognisably reduced and antagonistic family.
After a terrible trickery is enacted on her by her mother and aunt, Maryam makes a heroic decision between “the living and the dead”, away from “bloodiness and scourge”.
O’Brien has made a brave choice too. In this impeccably written and indelible novel, she brings her juristic yet merciful eye to an ever-wider expression of the deep injustices of female and human circumstance. One is reminded of Bertolt Brecht: “There will also be singing. About the dark times.”
Girl, by Edna O’Brien, Faber, RRP£16.99, 240 pages
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