By Edna O’Brien
Throughout her long career, Edna O’Brien has proved to be an exceptionally brave writer, resolved to tell the truth, loyal to nothing except her memory, her imagination and her faith in the power and beauty of language. In her novels, short stories and plays, she’s been, from the start, a kind of accidental provocateur, apparently surprised each time her truth-telling has been received as a provocation.
Her first novel, “The Country Girls,” published in 1960, was not just banned but burned in her native Ireland, where she was savagely criticized for her depiction of female sexual desire and of the problems — poverty, alcoholism, misogyny — that plague rural communities like the one in which she grew up. “Girl,” her latest work of fiction, must have been written either in blissful innocence or willful disregard for the current debate about whether we have the right to tell the stories of those with whom we share nothing — neither race nor ethnicity, nationality nor class background — apart from our common humanity.
“Girl” is narrated in the easy, deceptively offhand, frequently lyrical first person that O’Brien’s readers will find familiar. But, in what seems like a radical departure, the voice belongs to Maryam, one of the schoolgirls kidnapped by Boko Haram in northeastern Nigeria. In fact, O’Brien has for some time been determined, with increasing urgency, to write about historical violence. Her 1994 novel, “House of Splendid Isolation,” which addresses I.R.A. terrorism, declares that “history is everywhere, it seeps into the soil, the subsoil, like blood.” O’Brien’s most recent novel, the remarkable “The Little Red Chairs,” brings the conflict in Bosnia to an Irish village in the person of an escaped war criminal masquerading as a New Age sex therapist. Now, in “Girl,” she has left Ireland entirely and gone to the camp where Maryam and her schoolmates are being held captive, brutalized and enslaved by their jihadi kidnappers.
The book begins on “that first awful night” when masked men invade the girls’ secondary-school dormitory, pretending to be soldiers come to protect them from the extremist insurrection. But the intruders are the insurrection, and soon the girls find themselves in the back of an open truck, hurtling through the jungle. Herded into an encampment, they are harangued by the fundamentalist emir, forced into hard labor and repeatedly assaulted by men who use rape as a drug with which to fire themselves up for battle. The girls can only pray they won’t become pregnant, pray they’ll be rescued, pray to survive. Meanwhile, they do what they can to preserve their dignity, to comfort and console one another.
Maryam’s luck, such as it is, runs out when she is forced to marry Mahmoud. When he is wounded in an attack, his standing in the community is diminished, as is Maryam’s when she gives birth to a girl instead of the hoped-for boy. Eventually Maryam escapes and, with her baby and a friend, must navigate a series of challenges and horrors. Aided by kindly nomads and a sympathetic military commander, she is at last reunited with her family. This should mark the happy conclusion to her troubles, but they’re far from over. It is one thing to be a former kidnapping victim and quite another to be the mother of a jihadi’s child. Like the heroine of “The Little Red Chairs,” Maryam is punished for having been impregnated by the enemy.
It’s a tribute to O’Brien’s skill as a writer — her ability to inhabit the minds of her characters and to craft virtuosic sentences — that “Girl” is immensely painful to read. Our sympathy for Maryam is unquestioning and deep, even as she reveals aspects of her psyche that have been severely damaged by her experience. Gradually, we realize that we have come to know Maryam so well that we can anticipate her responses, even before she has them. As she haltingly makes her way toward a somewhat brighter future, she meets others with their own disturbing narratives, which give us a more panoramic picture of the ravages inflicted by Boko Haram.
On the day I finished reading “Girl,” I was moved to begin “Beneath the Tamarind Tree,” Isha Sesay’s account of her journey to report for CNN on the release of some of the Nigerian girls kidnapped by Boko Haram. Reading the two books in tandem provided a lesson about the possibilities and limitations of fiction and nonfiction.
The books share certain key details: The girls are alerted to the presence of danger when they hear the insurgents shout “Allahu Akbar”; a few brave girls jump off the trucks and escape as they are being transported. But if Sesay’s book is less lyrical and interior than O’Brien’s, it’s also more nuanced and complex. Not all the girls, it turns out, were as compliant as Maryam. Led by one of Sesay’s heroines, a spirited young woman named Priscilla, some girls carry out small but effective acts of resistance — screaming all night, refusing to bathe or to marry their captors — minirebellions that their abductors (for the most part less mindlessly vicious than their fictional counterparts) find unnerving.
Nonfiction allows for the sort of factual exposition that can sound stilted when it appears in a novel disguised as dialogue, as happens when O’Brien’s military commander reads aloud from the newspaper: “In this country up to two million people have fled their homes, 1.9 million people are currently displaced, 5.2 million people are without food and an estimated 450,000 children under 5 are suffering from severe malnutrition.” And though some of the Nigerian girls may have been rejected by their families, as is Maryam, her mistreatment by those who presumably love her sounds more like a familiar development in an Edna O’Brien novel than the scene of rejoicing in Sesay’s book when parents are reunited with their daughters.
In a review in these pages of “Beneath the Tamarind Tree,” the New York Times reporter Somini Sengupta faulted Sesay for giving us an “unsatisfying,” “drive-by” picture of Boko Haram and the stolen girls of Chibok. Stronger criticism will doubtless be leveled at O’Brien for taking on a subject so distant from her own experience. This story, Sengupta argued, should rightly be told by one of the Chibok girls themselves. How we would welcome such a book! But, in the meantime, I would argue that we can’t hear this story often enough, regardless of who tells it. Reading these two books, I’ve thought more about the Chibok girls than I have since their abduction in 2014, and the celebrities who initially took up their cause — among them, Michelle Obama, Beyoncé and Alicia Keys — would probably say the same. Given the three-ring circus being staged daily in our political arena, it’s hard to stay focused on a particular event for a week, let alone five years.
Let’s give O’Brien credit for her energy and passion, for reminding us that at every moment girls are being abused and exploited with unconscionable cruelty and malice. Let’s honor her for the grit that inspired her, a woman in her 80s, to travel to Nigeria to listen to people’s stories. We’re still hoping for that book by the Chibok girl, but in the interim we should celebrate Edna O’Brien for the skill with which she makes us care. Surely it’s better to be mindful of the suffering humans inflict on one another, around the world and within our borders, than to distract ourselves with the pleasures of our comfortable lives and forget the crimes that have happened and continue to happen as we wait for the witness, the survivor, the ideally suitable person to tell us the harrowing truth.
Francine Prose’s most recent books are an essay collection, “What to Read and Why,” and a novel, “Mister Monkey.”
By Edna O’Brien
230 pp. Farrar, Straus & Giroux. $26.
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