“A very difficult read” – Girl by Edna O’Brien

Girl is, if our count is correct, Edna O’Brien’s eighteenth novel; she’s also written eight story collections (plus a ‘selected’ volume), not to mention her play-scripts, poetry, books for children, essay collections and works of literary criticism. Despite her phenomenal output, however, she remains best known for her debut novel, The Country Girls, which caused no end of scandal when it was first published in 1960: along with its two sequels, it was banned by the Irish censorship board for its criticism of the state’s repressive Catholic regime (in particular, its attitude to female sexuality). Almost sixty years later, O’Brien’s concerns haven’t changed – she’s still acutely interested in the social impact of religious and/or state ideologies, particularly concerning gender, sexuality, and power, upon ordinary communities.

So: context. In April 2014, 276 schoolgirls aged between sixteen and eighteen were kidnapped from the Government Secondary School in the predominantly Christian town of Chibok, north-eastern Nigeria, by armed members of the Jihadist terrorist organisation known since 2015 as the Islamic State in West Africa, but before that popularly referred to as Boko Haram. The Nigerian government’s response was – and is – widely criticised by the children’s parents as being inadequate; Nigeria’s own armed forces confirmed Amnesty International’s claim that the military had had several hours’ advance warning of the attack, but failed – allegedly due to an inability to mobile reinforcements – to react. Over the next months and years, many of the girls escaped or were released following protracted negotiations and ransom payments; their reports included accounts of multiple rapes, beatings, and killings; forced marriages to militants; forced conversions to Islam; and the selling of their peers into slavery. As of 2019, 112 of the victims remain missing. Girl, then, is O’Brien’s treatment of these events; it is, as you might imagine, a very difficult read.

Maryam, O’Brien’s first-person narrator, is the titular girl, one of the kidnapped students. The novel opens with ‘the sudden pah-pah of gunshot in our dormitory’, and we follow Maryam as she’s transported to the militants’ encampment. We witness – as Maryam undergoes it – the institutionalised multiple and mass rapes of children and young women; we see the plastic bucket placed underneath the table upon which they’re placed in order to catch the girls’ blood as the watching men ‘bay and scream’. We see the Blue House – a black and windowless shed – where the girls are laid out for the men ‘before battle, to get them fired up, so that they set forth, sated and battle-maddened’. We see girls sold as wives to prominent Jihadists; we Maryam married off to a young man who was himself taken and conscripted, and forced to kill his own cousin. We see Maryam – now a mother – escape with her infant daughter, Babby, and flee in terror across a country where people, including her own family, are afraid to help a militant’s wife, no matter what has happened to her. We see her own child rejected by her family and removed from her, lest Babby grow up a Jihadist like her father – no matter that her father, too, was a victim. We see, too, hope – people (both Christian and Muslim) who help Maryam and Babby, but though we see them survive, this is neither a survival narrative nor a redemptive account of human triumph over adversity; rather, it’s testimonial: it’s a laying bare of the reality of lives lived, and lived now, under the shadow of IS.

It is, again – because this can’t be reiterated enough – a difficult text. And this isn’t just because O’Brien (rightly) refuses to shy away from the brutalities undergone by Maryam and her peers; it’s also because she refuses set up a clear dichotomy between the comforts of home and the horrors of war. Maryam’s family expel Babby; Maryam herself, for a very long time, can’t bond with her child – the lingering flesh-and-blood manifestation of her imprisonment and assault. Similarly, neither can Maryam draw a neat division between evil militants and good civilians – she is witness to the painful histories of stolen boys and men, like her husband, forced into violence and traumatised by their experiences, and she is victim to the fear and prejudices of those left behind, and – significantly – the moral judgements cast upon girls who have been impregnated by the enemy. Maryam is pitied as a victim and yet condemned as a collaborator; escaping from the Boko Haram camp does not restore the life stolen from her, from her family, from her community.

An obvious question here is about cultural appropriation: does O’Brien, an Irish novelist, a white Western novelist, have the right to tell this story? The book’s acknowledgements go some way towards articulating a readymade response: they detail the extent of her research – her trips to Nigeria, her interviews with some of the real-life girls returned or escaped from the IS camps, her visits to the Fulani tribe who, in the novel, temporarily house Maryam and Babby, her time in the refugee camps where Maryam lived for a while. O’Brien’s ongoing concerns as a writer – as above, the ideological positioning of women and female sexuality in the context of organised religion – resonate painfully with the real-life situations of women like Maryam, thrown out of their communities and condemned for their own victimisation and brutalisation. Moreover, despite the particularity of Maryam’s experiences as detailed in the book’s chapters, O’Brien’s intent was less to present this as a singular account, than to use the character as a conduit through which other stories – other versions – of the situation could be explored. This is borne out in the book’s diction and tone – sophisticated, sharp, and in places dreamlike and lyrical – which position Maryam as a visionary narrator rather than a wounded child. By eliding realism in this way, whilst nonetheless frankly detailing the literal horrors of the characters’ experiences, O’Brien refuses to act as a mouthpiece for a community foreign to her, while yet remaining faithful to the actual experiences of her various interviewees.

Any Cop?: This is an important story, extremely effectively told – it’s powerful without indulging in sensationalism. Probably not one to wrap up for under the Christmas tree, though.

 

Valerie O’Riordan

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