The assault on young women as an act of war is nothing new as the epigraph from Euripides’ The Trojan Women reminds us in Girl by Edna O’Brien. After a year of research including first-hand testimonies from survivors, O’ Brien brings this forcefully into the present as we confront the imagined traumatic fall-out from a schoolgirl’s kidnap and rape by Boko Haram in Nigeria in 2014. In Girl, Edna O’Brien has produced a work that sharply distils language into a reduced and banal form, journalistic in its savage editing and brutal in its delivery. Language is manipulated to transmit emotion, to reveal how men use it to assert power and how trauma denies it space.
Separated geographically by their forced march into the dense jungle and culturally from the expectations of their parents and families, the girls from Chibok succumb to a wholesale male abuse of power and are degraded, shamed and exposed; ‘their faces distorted and pulpy from crying’. As the book opens we are introduced to the devastating confusion and complexities of Maryam’s new reality: “There is only Babby and me now. Sometimes I want to kill her.”
The first-person narrative with its staccato sentences is direct and restrained; our witness recalls how she ‘hid my diary, as it was my last link with my life.’ Every detail is minutely observed; time is slowed, we are immersed in the fecundity of nature, of ‘turmeric, juniper, baobab’ with its terrifying contrast to the girls’ experience. Fear is ever present as the militant jihadis take villages and families ‘are drawn into that miasma of corruption’.
In a short space, the girls are silenced, in one case made literally voiceless by having her tongue cut out. No-one knows how to respond. Edna O’Brien’s scrupulous use of language, taut and precise, creates a visual world when ‘the strips of the other side of her jaw came hanging off’ as Maryam witnesses the slaughter of a stoned women. We are there: we are implicated. Set against this is the solidarity of women who offer a simple touch, share food and silence, subtly rendered in the companionship between Buki and Maryam.
Babby is a potent reminder that new life is created by rape and our narrator’s fierce maternal bond is threatening to other women who are culturally beholden to ties of tribe and village. Trauma is re-enacted when Maryam is sold off as a child bride to Jihadi Mahmoud but nothing is simple: her reaction is neutral – she doesn’t love him, ‘but I did not wish him dead’. After killing his first cousin and wounding his leg, he retreats into madness.
Used as a political pawn by Nigeria’s power-brokers to champion their fight against Boko Haram, Maryam’s agonies increase. Set against the final horror of being stigmatised and disowned by family for her transgressions, her broken voice is shown by O’Brien as fractured words spooling off the page. Yet a final encounter with nuns and the chance to assist in a schoolroom completes the circle and hints of a hopeful future.
Girl is a lesson in resilience, how glimpses of happiness illuminate a dark world. It champions the resourcefulness of women and recalls the joy of friendship, of stories exchanged and breaking into dance.
Claimed to be her last book, Girl is a book to read now, urgently, to share and discuss: a game changer.
Girl by Edna O’Brien is published by Faber & Faber, 240 pages.