Awful things occur in distant countries, and we push them away. It’s difficult to meaningfully register, for example, news about a group of Nigerian schoolgirls being kidnapped by Boko Haram. Too remote. Too terrible, almost, to believe.
Step aside, news, and let fiction take over.
Celebrated Irish-born writer Edna O’Brien’s considerable achievement in her newest novel is to make forgotten people less forgotten, to render modern horrors less unfathomable.
“Girl” is the story of Maryam, who is kidnapped one night along with classmates at her Christian girls’ boarding school. The captors, modeled after the Islamist group Boko Haram in Nigeria, truck the girls to a remote compound. There they are raped, beaten, enslaved and brainwashed.
The government and unbelievers are to blame, the girls are told by an emir who shows up at a remote prison camp with armed guards to lecture in classic cult-speak. “Even if you think you love your family and have made a promise in your heart, you must renounce it. You must stamp it out now. For a little while, you will shed girlish tears, but they will cease and you will be flying like birds to the fields of paradise.”
As the novel progresses, it seems that the slightest comfort or moment of beauty is soon fractured by heartbreak, new degradations, the slow perpetual banishment of any kind of certainty, the irreversible erasure of hope.
After epic hardships that include near starvation and being impregnated by a rebel fighter, things brighten when Maryam finds her way back home, her infant in tow. Government officials exploit her return for its PR effect. More painfully, she and her “bush baby” are viewed with suspicion and hostility by villagers and family, including Maryam’s own grieving mother.
Readers of O’Brien’s 2016 novel “The Little Red Chairs” will recall that her crystalline prose is unblinking, even when describing extreme violence. “Girl” has a horrific scene of a group rape of the girls by young men on a rickety table in broad daylight. Says Maryam, “We were too young to know what had happened, or what to call it.”
The girls face mental cruelty, as well — sleep deprivation and the forced memorization of chunks of the Qur’an. The novel’s grimness left me wondering if it would have a happy ending. Read it and find out.
Some will question whether a white European should create a novel torn from recent headlines about black-on-black cruelty and suffering in Africa. I fall on the side of “let her write what she wants.” Not that O’Brien, now in her late 80s and with 18 novels to her credit, needs my or anyone’s permission to select her subject matter.
Perplexing to me was the novel’s frequent, jarring and seemingly random switches between the simple past and simple present tense. With one major exception, Muslims in “Girl” are seen as depraved, misguided and ignorant, while Christians are mostly kind and charitable.
Still, a tough and resilient girl such as Maryam would find it difficult to find a more brilliant writer than O’Brien to narrate her harrowing story.
Claude Peck is a former Star Tribune editor and a member of the National Book Critics Circle.
By: Edna O'Brien.
Publisher: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 230 pages, $26.