This novel was inspired by the story of the abduction of schoolgirls by the jihadist group Boko Haram, news which, unlike so many comparable horrors, caught the attention of the world’s media. O’Brien, whose last extraordinary novel, The Little Red Shoes, dealt with the aftermath of war crimes in the Balkans, explored the story in several visits to Nigeria, and she tells it through the voice of one of the schoolgirls, a Christian by upbringing whom she calls Maryam.
No doubt zealots who foolishly think an author should be prohibited from using his or her imagination will accuse her of “cultural appropriation.” No matter: the result is astonishing and moving. It is a story not only of horror, but of courage, moments of despair, resilience and the kindness of women. The part telling of Maryam’s suffering at the hands of the jihadis is written with masterly economy; a lesser writer would have spun this out to three times the length.
When Maryam, remarkably but credibly, escapes with her baby, her ordeal is far from over. The journey itself is dangerous. There is fear everywhere. She herself, with her jihadi’s child, is tainted. A woman who helps her must reluctantly send her on her way: “Word,” she says, “had got out that we were hiding a militant’s wife and child. Everyone down there is in terror.”
Even when she reaches home and her mother, nothing is easy. Too much has happened. The baby is something to be ashamed of. Her return is made the occasion of an official celebration, with a speech from the president, but, for Maryam, it all rings false. The questions of how to survive, how to recover from such an ordeal, how to find a place in the world again, are pressing. The baby, whom she at first had been tempted to reject, has herself become an object of contention.
O’Brien paints a picture of a broken society, one in which Christianity and Islam exist side by side with inherited beliefs in magic and a parallel spirit world, a society ravaged by war and fanaticism, one in which women are victims, objects of male lust, hatred and contempt. Yet one of the beauties of this novel is that it strikes a note of defiance, of refusal to accept that inhumanity must triumph over love.There are broken men, women and children everywhere. There is fear and suspicion, but there is also hope and a belief in the healing power of kindness and virtue.
Novels are journeys, voyages of exploration and a movement towards understanding, for the characters of course, but also for the writer and the reader. The writer in this case was in her mid-eighties when she embarked on this journey. There is a tendency, hard to avoid, for a patronising note to enter any review of a novel by a very young or very old author. But nobody surely is tempted to write about O’Brien in that way; it would indeed be utterly absurd. Even to say that one is staggered by her enduring vitality, keen intelligence and range of sympathy seems otiose. Her writing remains as vivid , imaginative and gorgeous as it was in her brilliant youth.
Moreover, this new novel and its immediate predecessor display the wisdom of maturity. She is not only prepared to tackle big , difficult and controversial subjects from which less bold novelists would shrink,
but she addresses them with a wonderful assurance. She is a writer from whom anyone would wish to learn, and one indeed who reminds us that imaginative fiction can illuminate the world and the way we live, feel and think as not even the best non-fiction can. DH Lawrence called the novel “the great book of life;” it is that book which O’Brien opens for us. Read Girl and marvel at its rich humanity. Allan Massie
Girl, by Edna O’Brien, Faber & Faber, 230pp, £16.99