Edna O’Brien’s troubling new novel, written after she travelled to Nigeria in her 80s to speak to girls who had been kidnapped by jihadist group Boko Haram, makes the recent craze for dystopia look frivolous.
It’s narrated by Maryam, whom we follow through her abduction and its aftermath. As a prisoner she’s given as a prize to a soldier, Mahmoud, whose baby she bears. The action is fast-moving: five pages take us from her arranged marriage to her pregnancy to Mahmoud returning from a battle with his leg half-blown off, at which point he shows her where he’s been stashing money and tells her to take it.
Maryam’s feelings about Mahmoud aren’t straightforward – not least when he explains that he joined the militants to protect his mother – and her sympathy for him affects her relationship with another girl, Buki, with whom she escapes in the chaotic fallout of an attack by the Nigerian army.
O’Brien doesn’t spare our sensitivities – the opening pages feature gang rape, a mass live burial, a stoning – but describes the horror with eerie calm. When Mahmoud gives Maryam a veil “as a gift”, the narrator thinks: “… they must have looted it from one of the shops in a town before torching it. It did not smell of burning. How many girls had looked at it in a shop window and dreamed of owning it and where were those dreams now. Lost in an infinite nowhere. And where were those who had dreamed them.”
The glazed, stunned quality produced by the lack of question marks gives the sense that there’s no longer any point questioning the details of a reality bent out of shape by sudden random violence.
As Maryam wanders, she becomes a kind of sounding board for other survivors’ stories, represented in italicised passages, as she navigates a hellscape of unthinkable atrocity in which fear of reprisals makes people unwilling to help. When she is eventually reunited with her family, it becomes clear she has swapped one prison for another; she’s accused of having inflicted her suffering on herself as her baby is taken away and she is beaten.
Although the closing lines, for all the hideousness preceding them, offer a rare moment of hope, O’Brien makes clear that, for Maryam, the business of survival is ongoing. This is a challenging novel in several senses: painful to read, it also lands – whether intentionally or not – as an intervention in recent arguments over cultural appropriation and the boundaries of fictional imagination.
As late-career gambles go, it’s a bold one. Yet one senses O’Brien felt the story was simply too urgent not to put her gifts in its service. By the end, you can’t help but applaud the contradictory balance of tact and audacity by which she makes the horrendous source material unignorable.
• Girl by Edna O’Brien is published by Faber (£16.99).To order a copy go to guardianbookshop.com or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £15, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of £1.99