Beating the odds
Girl, by Edna O’Brien, Faber & Faber, 230 pp, £13.99, ISBN: 978-0571341177
Lives of Girls and Women, the title of Alice Munro’s 1971 collection of stories, puts one in mind of what is also an abiding, overriding theme and preoccupation for Edna O’Brien. Girls and women, in many guises, shapes and conditions, are central to O’Brien’s novels and stories from The Country Girl of 1960 on. Country girls, city girls, scandalous women, vulnerable women, indomitable women throng the pages of her enticing, illuminating works of fiction. But no one could have predicted where the topic would lead her. This quintessentially Irish, and also worldly and astute author, has, with her latest novel, fixed her attention on utterly unfamiliar territory, on a crime against humanity and unspeakable female suffering and degradation.
The place is northern Nigeria. On a night in April 2014, members of the militant Islamic terrorist group Boko Haram storm into the dormitory of a girls’ school in the town of Chibok ‑ “faces covered, eyes glaring” ‑ and capture 276 female students who are roused out of their sleep, rounded up and taken away at gunpoint. The girls are loaded into trucks and driven at speed through dense jungle, terrified and bewildered. It’s the end of everything they know. A few escape by leaping from the trucks, taking their lives in their hands, but most lack the nerve or desperation this requires. With their eventual arrival at a distant and dismal camp in a forest, the next stage of schoolgirls’ ordeal begins: rape, enslavement, mutilation, beating, defilement.
This shocking news story caught the western world’s attention for a moment, but then faded out of the public consciousness as no successful rescue attempt was undertaken or newsworthy developments ensued. The Chibok schoolgirls were left to their awful fate. However, in the imagination of one undaunted author, Edna O’Brien, the story took hold; and, in Girl, the events of that April night and the following months and years are condensed and reshaped into an arresting work of fiction.
It’s a far cry from Tuamgraney in Co Clare to northern Nigeria indeed, and from The Country Girl to Girl. But there’s a sense in which a kind of literary continuity is apparent throughout O’Brien’s work. You could say she’s continuing to speak out against vastly different forms of female oppression and indoctrination, wherever found in the world, and to do it with unusual tact and felicity of touch. Part of her purpose, as well, is to uphold the different kinds of fortitude needed to survive in desperate circumstances, and to make one’s mark. But Africa? To gain a feeling for the physical landscape, along with the culture and conditions of such an alien place, it was necessary for Edna O’Brien to make several journeys to Nigeria (and to carry enough cash to bribe some officials and informants along the way). Pretty hazardous for anyone, you might think, let alone a slender Irishwoman in her mid-eighties. But O’Brien carried it off with her usual aplomb. And the resulting novel, Girl, is a testament to her insight and intrepidity.
After the narrative complexities of her previous work, The Little Red Chairs (2015), with its shifts of mood and scene, its abundant ideas and motifs and its discursive engagement with present-day atrocities (in particular, with Serbian war crimes), O’Brien has opted here for a more highly focused approach. She has her protagonist, Maryam ‑ the “girl” of the title ‑ who stands in the author’s mind for all those abducted and abused, damned as infidels and unbelievers (Islamists are particularly incensed by female education, which contradicts their view of women’s place in the tribe ‑ shades of The Handmaid’s Tale here), forced into sexual and domestic servitude and unwanted marriages, or turned into suicide bombers. It’s a world in which the smallest step out of line can get you stoned to death ‑ and the description of how this punishment is carried out makes horrific reading ‑ or subjected to a public lashing.
Maryam survives. The opening sentence shows her staggering through a forest, the same forest “that I saw, that first awful night, when I and my friends were snatched from the school”. Bloody, ragged, frantic, she presses on and on, burdened with an infant, the child of her forced marriage to an Islamist combatant called Mahmood (not the worst of the jihadis ‑ in fact, he saves her life). Along with another girl, Buki, Maryam has escaped from the settlement during an aerial bombardment by government forces, stepping over the dead and dying, leaving behind a blazing inferno, seeing for the last time “their black flag, with its white insignia of swords, in tatters everywhere”.
It’s the start of an epic journey. This extraordinary novel has the quality of a deranged folk tale, fraught with danger and darkness and the evils of the present time. It embodies a kind of “Babes-in-the-Wood” fascination and glamour.
Buki is irrepressible, her face glowing with the light from the fire, her eyes big and black with a melting blackness. She is dancing a slow lazy dance, as Babby totters behind. Sparks fly about and the old blighted trees, with their straggling white beards, creak into life, from the blazing fire.
The fugitives subsist on berries, dates, unripe mangoes and other fruits of the forest. The background to their homewards trudge is filled with people screaming and running, burnt villages, devastated lands, “bloodiness and scourge”. Horror is piled upon horror. But the lacerating particulars are mitigated by the poetic economy of O’Brien’s prose, its directness and lucidity. The author’s unflinching record of carnage and catastrophe carries no excessive emotional charge. She is simply telling it as it is. If it’s heart-of-darkness material it has a modern impetus and resourcefulness. And then, despite the location and its strangeness, the modus operandi of Girl is not entirely unprecedented in the O’Brien oeuvre. We might think of the striking story “Plunder” in her 2011 collection Saints and Sinners, which is set in a timeless, unspecified war zone, with rampaging soldiers, rape and terrorisation and ferocious dogs running loose without muzzles. Something of the atmosphere of this vivid story is carried through to the current novel ‑ which also harks back to the part of The Little Red Chairs which extols the power of stories, the stories of shattered, beaten, bereaved or exiled people.
The strong narrative voice of Girl continues with its particular and compelling forwards momentum. Maryam finds a temporary shelter with a band of nomads, herders and wood-gatherers from North Africa and the sub-Sahara: temporary, because it soon transpires that her presence among them is endangering their lives and livelihoods. To harbour a militant’s runaway wife is to lay oneself open to horrendous retaliation from the Boko Haram terrorists. O’Brien’s beset heroine has no alternative but to move on. She moves on. Events keep unfolding like a series of hallucinations. In the end, after solitude and peril, comes a city with many people, fanfare and celebration. It is nearly too much for Maryam, whose senses begin to disintegrate as her words spiral downwards on the page in an inarticulate outcry. What she also finds herself receiving, towards the end of the book and like some of the real-life schoolgirls who escaped the clutches of Boko Haram and made it back to their homes, is a somewhat lukewarm welcome from family members. The taint of “Jihadi bride” is hard to dispel. Some are even held responsible for family misfortunes occurring in their absence. This sense of damage and fragility is superbly rendered in the character of Maryam, but in the hands of Edna O’Brien the girl is endowed with an extra quality, an inner strength which will see her through the worst of the trauma. As O’Brien has said in an interview, she doesn’t “just write about victims [an accusation levelled at her by certain unperceptive feminists]. I write about victims who pull through … Resilience. It’s resilience.” You have to keep on keeping on. And, as the last line of the story “Plunder” has it, “Many and terrible are the roads to home.”
Patricia Craig is an author and critic. Her books include A Twisted Root: Ancestral Entanglements in Ireland. Bill Heaney took the photograph of Edna O’Brien at the Edinburgh Book Festival.