Girl by Edna O'Brien: A masterpiece of storytelling
'I was a girl once, but not any more," Edna O'Brien's latest book, Girl, begins bleakly. What follows is the shockingly brutal story of Maryam, a schoolgirl living in Nigeria who is abducted by Boko Haram terrorists.
This story is, of course, based on real life events; O'Brien in her research visited the country a number of times, famously, with wads of money tucked into her underwear.
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Maryam and her friends are snatched from their dormitory one night. Their captors had been looking for more boys to turn into soldiers. None were available, "girls will do" they say. It is the opening salvo in a tale that underlines just how powerless and devalued women are in this environment. Taken to the depths of the jungle; O'Brien uses the personification of nature throughout to signal the depravity of this world - the trees "taking us into their vile embrace".
Maryam has managed to smuggle a tiny notebook with her. She uses it to record what happens to her, a small act of defiance in the face of male domination.
Life in the camp is relentlessly savage. The women are both domestic and sexual slaves; shortly after their arrival, Maryam is involved in a gang rape.
The kitchen where she works smells of slaughter, she scrapes maggots from the meat before cooking it.
The women's only private space is the fetid swamp they use as a bathroom; "the only home we knew".
They are "plundered" nightly by the men, who "jovially" rape them. In an attempt at self-preservation, Maryam attempts to shut down. "Make me blank," she implores God. "Empty me of all that was." This proves impossible, and the novel traces the fracturing of the self, which continues even after Maryam returns to apparent safety.
Eventually escaping the camp, Maryam and her infant daughter return home, only to find that the consequences of the behaviour of her male tormentors are hers to bear. An unwed mother, she is drenched in stigma, "a freak". She cannot tell the truth of her story. Instead, she is cautioned to "show good behaviour". She must self-edit. "You live by power and we by powerlessness," she reflects of the men around her.
Now aged 88, there have been suggestions that this is O'Brien's last book, which would be a shame given the mastery she displays here. This territory, young women and the attempts they face at the hands of men to control, coerce and punish them, is not new to O'Brien. Her very first work, The Country Girls trilogy, covered similar themes. Using her writing as a voice for women who have been denied it is part of the O'Brien make-up. The language here is sparse and taut, but you can sense the author's bristling outrage. Girl feels similar to My Dark Vanessa, a book about the sexual grooming of a teenage girl, already being touted as one of the biggest literary events of next year. Both are deeply empathetic on the matter of suffering which has been made taboo, both are based on the true stories of survivors, making them very necessary reading. "We do not have the power to change things… because we are women," Maryam's mother tells her. By telling this story, Edna O'Brien, as she has before, does her part to incite change. On the way she creates another masterpiece.
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