THE WASHINGTON POST – “I smell. Blood dried and crusted all over me.” So Edna O’Brien’s novel Girl begins.
The speaker, Maryam, is narrating of being abducted from her school in Nigeria by the militants – or ‘Jas Boys’ – of Boko Haram, subjected to horrific torture, forced marriage and motherhood, then escaping and undergoing further gruesome misadventures as she makes her way home, where she is feted as a survivor.
In this story she is simply a girl, carrying the weight of what that means in a culture that has little use and respect for her.
From her first, celebrated Country Girls Trilogy, O’Brien has been a deft chronicler of the friction between the inner and social lives of her female characters – a friction that has become darker and more violent over time, most recently in The Little Red Chairs, the harrowing tale of a lonely Irishwoman’s devastating affair with a character modelled on the Bosnian Serb war criminal Radovan Karadzi.
In Girl, the violence continues, as Maryam describes what happens to her, what she observes and what she does, all with the flat affect of the traumatised.
She is capable of odd, often powerful, perverse flights of language – the stoning of an adulteress that the girls are forced to witness ends.
But mostly she details her travels and travails – hiding, hunger, snake bites, companions acquired and lost, hostility, painful rituals and rare kindnesses – in a disjointed, disorienting way unsurprising from someone who declares, early in her ordeal, “There is a black void within me, but not void enough to blank everything out.”
Most disorienting of all is how she handles the burden of her child, a girl, of course, unwanted, cherished, abandoned, reclaimed, stolen, reported dead, mourned, recovered, all in the most arbitrary way, as if to enact the breakdown of intimate bonds that might hold Maryam’s world together.
It may be brave of O’Brien to take on such a grievous subject so far from her home turf, and it may be churlish to question the authenticity of her rendering of a tortured child’s plight; but it’s also hard to avoid comparing Maryam’s voice with the voice that Susan Minot conjured for a schoolgirl abducted by Joseph Kony’s Lord’s Resistance Army in Uganda for her 2014 novel Thirty Girls.
Where Minot’s girl was heart-rendingly real, O’Brien’s Girl feels, rather, like a brilliant performance.