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This book is strikingly brave in two ways. First, in the fortitude of its writer, the redoubtable Edna O’Brien, who at 88 years old traveled twice to northern Nigeria, her bra stuffed with thousands of dollars, in order to research this story. She ended up staying in a convent with kindly nuns who helped introduce her to its subject, the girls kidnapped by Boko Haram in 2014.
Second, in these days of cultural appropriation O’Brien takes on the persona of Maryam, a very young African girl. But this book is at its core a misery memoir about the dreadful things done to women and girls in the name of religion. It’s hardly an area O’Brien can’t lay claim to.
Maryam is kidnapped, raped, married off, and impregnated. She gives birth and escapes. And then everything gets notably worse. This is a short, sharp shock of a book, which cascades with the odd logic of a dream. People appear out of nowhere, to get killed randomly. By page seven there is already a girl with her tongue cut out, ‘seeping with blood… shaking uncontrollably’. So be warned: it is not fun and not for the squeamish.
The writing, though, is propulsive, the scenes short, angry and compelling. This is occasionally to Girl’s detriment. Sometimes the urgency of the intruding voices, all telling their stories, means that the characters exist only to suffer, horribly and repeatedly. O’Brien works so hard to get inside the psyche of terribly damaged children — to do it right — that the character of Maryam can seem flat. Although that is undoubtedly psychologically accurate, this isn’t an essay: it’s a novel. Girl suffers, but she doesn’t always live in the way the boys of Colson Whitehead’s The Nickel Boys do, forcing themselves into rude existence beyond the confines of their pages.
But there is so much fire in the writing. The dust is an ‘infinity of rising glitter’; midwives tear a placenta to pieces in their hunger; snakebitten legs are like black rotten posts. And when Maryam finally makes it back to her mother’s house, she finds that her kidnap has shamed the family:
‘Her face had turned to stone. I thought of the stone fonts in the churches with the small crevice to dip one’s finger in. I cannot dip my finger into my mother’s heart, ever more. Everything inside me is breaking up. I want to hurt her, and wipe her face in each grotesque and horrifying thing done to me. I fear her. I hate her. I have a baby. I miss her. I want her heartbeat next to mine.’
In the end, it is the sheer beauty of O’Brien’s prose that makes this novel superb: the universality and the care with which she has always written about all women as girls, daughters, and mothers, wherever they come from and whoever they are.