BOOK REVIEW: Edna O’Brien’s Lonely Girls


The setting of her new novel is terror-ridden Nigeria, a world away from her native Ireland, but the psychic territory is familiar.

The novel is short and spare, and its title, Girl, sounds abstract, even generic. The setting of the story is unspecified, though it’s clear enough. It’s Nigeria, and more or less now, during the reign of terror of the Islamist insurgency group Boko Haram, here referred to simply as the Jihadis. The girl of the title, however, does have a name, Maryam, and so do many of the other suffering girls and boys and men and women whose stories are told in passing in this mournful book—people rousted from their homes or, like Maryam, from their schools; people captured or set wandering in an unforgiving landscape. Their oppressors and even their putative saviors in the government and the army remain anonymous. The beleaguered and the beset-upon are the ones who count in Girl, as always in the stories Edna O’Brien has been telling for the past six decades. “We were at the rim of existence and we knew it,” Maryam says at one point, and that scary place, where a girl is alone with herself and a dubious future, has ever been O’Brien’s favored territory—her unnameable home.

When she made her sensational debut as a novelist, with The Country Girls (1960), O’Brien was telling the story of girls much like herself, growing up in the beauty and superstition and stifling piety of Ireland’s west country and trying to fight their way to another sort of life. That novel, which was a wee bit franker about the sexual longings of nice Irish Catholic girls than her countrymen were used to, was promptly banned in Ireland, as were its two sequels—The Lonely Girl (1962) and Girls in Their Married Bliss (1964)—and, for good measure, her next three novels as well. (Years later, she discovered that her own mother had redacted her personal copy of The Country Girls, blacking out offending words and phrases.) Like her contemporary Philip Roth, who later became a fast friend, O’Brien wrote about the messiness of sex and the paradoxes of cultural identity in ways that seemed to get under people’s skin, in language so luxuriant and intimate that you couldn’t deny the power of the feelings being described. And like Roth, she never quite cast off the whiff of scandal that clung to her earliest fiction. She learned, as he did, to wear it with a certain bemused pride.

O’Brien scandalizes by other means now. Her two most recent novels, The Little Red Chairs (2015) and Girl, find her taking on subjects that a writer of her years and stature might sensibly avoid as too grim: Serbian war crimes in The Little Red Chairs, and now the barbarities of Boko Haram. In Girl she even makes the daring choice to tell this terrible tale in the protagonist’s own words—an 88-year-old Irish woman speaking in the voice of a barely pubescent Nigerian girl. (Maryam isn’t quite sure how old she is.)

That choice feels natural because, despite the obvious contrasts in circumstances, this girl isn’t so different from O’Brien’s young Irish heroines. She lives in a world that’s testing her, daring her to survive. And she survives, in part, by the act of writing about her ordeals. In a scrupulously hidden diary, she enters the stark details of what she endures, records the nightmares she has while sleeping and awake. “From dream to waking and back again,” she writes. “I cannot tell the difference.” Her matter-of-factness is heartbreaking, as she describes a brutal kidnapping, genital mutilation, repeated rapes, a forced marriage, a painful childbirth, a terrified flight through the forest, the puzzling remoteness of family and friends and officials, the anguish of believing that her baby is dead—and, ever present, chaos, hunger, fear, and self-doubt. The story her furtive diary entries tell has a stunned, muted tone, the flat affect of someone in shock.

This is Maryam’s voice, in Girl’s first sentences: “I was a girl once, but not any more. I smell. Blood dried and crusted all over me, and my wrapper in shreds. My insides, a morass. Hurtled through this forest that I saw, that first awful night, when I and my friends were snatched from the school.” It’s the deadened, illusionless voice of innocence abruptly lost, quickened here and there by little verbal sparks like morass and hurtled, signal flares of the soul. O’Brien has often written about women who are victims, but her women, even the very young ones like Maryam, are never only victims. They’re always fighting, often with no weapon but language, to keep hold of themselves and find a way home.

Girl isn’t the book to read for the history of Boko Haram and its long assault on the peaceful citizens of Nigeria, or for a nuanced analysis of the country’s volatile politics. Scott MacEachern’s Searching for Boko Haram: A History of Violence in Central Africa (2018) does those jobs admirably, and The Chibok Girls: The Boko Haram Kidnappings and Islamist Militancy in Nigeria (2016), by the Nigerian novelist Helon Habila, supplies more detail about the 2014 schoolgirl abductions on which O’Brien’s novel is loosely based. Girl is the book to read for the sights and sounds and, yes, smells of some Nigerians’ harrowing experiences, and for a general sense of what it’s like to live in a world of radical, deadly unpredictability. Everything in Girl seems to happen suddenly, out of the blue or in the darkness of deep night. The novel hurtles, as its heroine is hurtled, from one thing to another and another and another, with deranging, near-hallucinatory speed.

The random-seeming quality of the storytelling is something new for O’Brien, whose usual pace is more measured and contemplative. The effect is disorienting, and it’s meant to be. I can’t think of another writer who so late in her career has so thoroughly reimagined herself and the practice of her art. She appears to have decided that the only way to do justice to her subject is this helter-skelter narrative style, in which events have no apparent logic, dreams and realit, and other voices, telling different stories or reciting learned myths and legends, keep bobbing up in the choppy course of Maryam’s tale.

We hear, in his own words, how a little boy named John-John was captured by the Jihadis; in her own words, how a schoolmate of Maryam’s made her escape; how an “oldish” man named Daran found his way to a crowded refugee camp; how the grandfather of a pilgrim called Esau slew a bull; and many other snatches of story, song, and even scripture, all recorded by the wandering girl Maryam as they were told to her. The rhythm of Girl is intermittent and fearsomely strong; reading this novel is like riding the rapids.

And that, it seems to me, is what living in one of the world’s too-numerous war-ravaged places must be like. The violence is awful, but just as awful, in a way, is the day-to-day accommodation to relentless illogic and unreason—the creeping sense, at every moment, of certain disruption and displacement, sudden exile and loss. Girl captures that sort of existential dread as well as any war novel I know. Early on, Maryam describes the day of her kidnapping: “We enter dense jungle, trees of all kinds, meshed together, taking us into their vile embrace. Nature had gone amok here.” That feeling of wrongness in nature is entirely new to her. Later, we learn that she had won a prize at school for an essay about trees, which did not seem then to embrace her vilely. Quite the contrary: “In our country we depend on trees for our lives,” she wrote.

For shelter in rain and for shade in sun. For food of many kinds. They are our second home … But the most important aspect of the tree is the Tree Spirit. Ancestors who have died live there and govern lives. They ward off evil. If these sacred trees are harmed or lopped or burnt, ancestors get very angry and sometimes take revenge. Crops fail and people go hungry. “Don’t step on the spirits,” my brother Yusuf would say when we did spells in there, tiptoeing over the bony roots that wound and knitted together. It was always at evening time. Birds did not roost there, but at certain times sang some song that was both inexplicably sweet and melancholy.

She dreams of this essay, at a moment when the very trees—her second home—have turned alien to her, malign. And when she wakes, in the Jihadis’ camp, she tells her diary: “I will never get out. I am here forever. I am asking God to please give me no more dreams. Make me blank. Empty me of all that was.”

This is a vision of hell: a girl, hardly begun in her life, wishing to be emptied of all that was. O’Brien has always been singularly alert to that sort of bleak emotion, especially when the despair is visited upon the young. It’s no more of a stretch for her to imagine the feelings of a Nigerian teenager than it was for her 16 years ago to find her way into the mind of another girl undone by war, in her play Iphigenia, adapted from Euripides. Is the experience of a contemporary African girl really less accessible to a European writer of the 21st century than the Trojan War and the worldview of the ancient Greeks? Iphigenia discovers in the course of the play that her father, King Agamemnon, means to sacrifice her in order to appease the gods and, he hopes, reverse the flagging fortunes of the restive military he commands. That’s a girl whose world has turned on her. Iphigenia naturally pleads with her father at first: “Do not destroy me before my time … I love the light … do not despatch me down to the netherworld … hell is dark and creepy and I have no friends there … I am your child … I basked in your love.” But by the inevitable end, she’s telling her mother, “One must not love life too much.” She’s been emptied.

War does that to people, and war, O’Brien knows, is a constant in history. Not all conflicts are the same, but their effects on the human spirit have a terrible sameness. It would be a shame if her attempt to assume the voice of an African girl were to be seen only, or even primarily, as an act of cultural appropriation. O’Brien’s understanding of, and sympathy for, girls in trouble transcends culture—the place she’s made for them in her fiction is practically a country of its own. But if Girl earns her a scolding from some quarters, or even stirs up a bit of a scandal, that’s something she has spent her whole long career learning to live with. She’ll survive, in that room of her own where the words come to her, out on the rim with all her lonely girls.