Tuesday 17 September 2019

A lament to lost innocence

Fiction: Girl

Edna O'Brien

Faber & Faber, hardback, 240 pages, €23.80

Luminous prose: O'Brien is nailing her colours defiantly to the mast when it comes to defending a writer's entitlement to imagine the inner lives of others
Luminous prose: O'Brien is nailing her colours defiantly to the mast when it comes to defending a writer's entitlement to imagine the inner lives of others
Girl by Edna O'Brien

Few people outside Nigeria had heard of the Islamist militant group Boko Haram until the night in April 2014 when hundreds of girls were kidnapped from their secondary school and taken to rebel-held territory in the north of the country.

Some managed to escape, or were rescued. Others died. Over a hundred are still missing. Their disappearance led to an international campaign, under the slogan Bring Back Our Girls. Now Edna O'Brien has added her own voice to that collective lament to lost innocence.

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That a privileged, white Irishwoman should adopt the voice of a teenage Nigerian girl who has suffered experiences beyond comprehension will inevitably risk accusations of cultural appropriation. Edna O'Brien is nailing her colours defiantly to the mast when it comes to defending a writer's entitlement to imagine the inner lives of others. The title she chose, Girl, suggests that the 88-year-old author wants to stake a claim for this story's universality, and perhaps also to complete a circle in her own creative life. She began her career in the early 1960s with The Country Girls trilogy. Her memoir, published in 2012, was Country Girl.

Now comes this, her 18th novel. It begins as the terrified girl of its title is taken, alongside scores of her friends, by terrorists who have broken into the school looking for equipment. "Girls will do," one quickly realises,

They are bundled into trucks and driven at speed through the night into deep jungle. One decides it's better to die than be taken, catches hold of an overhanging branch and leaps, to safety or death, they cannot say. The others are warned they will be shot if they do the same.

Separated in camps, they are given "morose blue" uniforms and hijabs that sees them "transformed, suddenly old, like bereaved nuns", forced to "memorise suras in a tongue that was alien to us and worship a God that was not ours". The first thing they're told is to abandon hope, like the guide in Dante's Divine Comedy entering hell. No one will come looking for them. They cannot trust their own people. "Allah was watching. It was all predestined."

"I had never imagined such power, such immunity," observes the narrator, Maryam, aghast. Next day, for the first time, they are raped, though "we were too young to know what had happened, or what to call it". The prettiest ones are taken away to be "sold as brides to rich men in Arabia", whilst those left behind eat certain leaves in the hope of not falling pregnant.

"I both died and did not die," she says.

In time she is married to a fighter, Mahmoud. She gives birth, but cannot love her baby. "What had happened to the girl I once was? She was gone. There was no love left in me."

Edna O'Brien is incapable of writing an ugly sentence. Words are like prayer beads in her fingers. Every line is elegant, graceful. Her descriptions of the natural world, and, particularly in this book, of the night sky, are never less than ravishing. That does present a problem, though. Brutal acts demand to be rendered in brutal language. Instead there is page after page of horrors, of rapes and murders, including one stoning that is almost unbearable to read, rendered in her trademark stunning prose.

"My mind runs between feast and vomit," the girl notes at one point. The book does the same.

In due course, she and her baby escape during an attack on the camp, and eventually find their way to the city, and a painful reunion with Maryam's mother. The government officially celebrates the return of girls like her, but inside she is angry, afraid of what men might do to her, and dreams of boiling her former captors in black pots: "We smash their skulls and their brains ooze out in a kind of murky mush. Their beards float on the surface like rotting scum."

It is nuns who help her start the journey of healing. Again, O'Brien seems here to be making peace with her own girlhood as a writer. Slowly, this girl learns how to love her baby, and the book ends with another description of the night sky, "a dome of gold from end to end, its lustre so bright that it seemed as if the world was on the edge of a new creation".

The subject matter of Girl covers similar ground to poet Jing-Jing Lee's debut, How We Disappeared, also published this year. That told the story of the so-called "comfort women" seized by Japanese soldiers in Singapore during the war and forced to work in brothels. Like the schoolgirls in Nigeria, they suffered brutality in capture, and ostracism on release. That was a much richer novel, perhaps because the pain in it came from the author's own family history.

In the acknowledgements at the end of this book, O'Brien recalls her visits to Nigeria, where she met some of the girls who escaped from Boko Haram, as well as many nuns and aid workers, but, beyond a few snippets from folk tradition, she never really gets under the skin of the culture. She remains an outsider, albeit one with a vocation for luminous prose.

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