GIRL by Edna O’Brien
Girl is a novel which should have been an essay. I think Edna O’Brien’s conviction and passion for the Nigerian women abducted by Boko Haram does shine through – that was the main thing I was worried about when approaching this book. I still remain unconvinced that Edna O’Brien (a white Irish woman) was the right person to tell this story, but I’m somewhat mollified by the fact that she demonstrably did her homework and put quite a lot of research into this endeavor. However, the result, to me, was something that would have worked better as a long-form essay than a fictional book; it felt like the novel’s central conceit was to show the horrors that these girls went through, which did not translate to particularly believable characters or compelling storytelling – I just kept asking myself why I wasn’t seeing a different version of this project as an essay in the New York Times.
One struggle I was not expecting to have with this book was with O’Brien’s prose, but that actually ended up being one of the main issues for me. Structurally it left a lot to be desired; every time a new character was introduced, Maryam’s first-person narration would be interrupted, and we would switch to an italicized segment, also first-person, where the character would narrate their life story for several pages. It felt like the linguistic equivalent of flashbacks – a storytelling convention that I always find lazy.
What was even odder was the disjointed fusion of past and present tense. As a veteran author I want to credit O’Brien with the benefit of the doubt here and say she was trying to achieve something with this, but to me it just felt like the book hadn’t been proofread. Example:
‘They don’t. They can’t.’ She was trembling so badly she had to hold on to a pillar. She refuses a drink of water.
‘I want to be normal,’ she says, the voice urgent.
‘You are normal,’ I say, although I too am jangled.
‘Maybe we can meet up,’ she said and for the first time, she smiled.
‘I am going home, Rebeka.’ I blurted it out, I had to.
‘They will reject you… They will turn you out,’ her voice ugly and spiteful.
‘I have a baby,’ I said, thinking it wiser to tell her.
‘A baby!’ She was aghast. It was all she wanted.
There’s a lot more that didn’t work for me: the pace of the first half of the novel hurtled by at breakneck speed as if it were running through a checklist of every horror imaginable, and the second half slowed to such a standstill all momentum was lost. I felt emotionally numb reading this, which is particularly noteworthy given how graphic it is (trigger warnings for everything imaginable apply). The exploration of trauma only ever felt surface-level; all I ever really learned about Maryam was about her identity as a mother; the more I read the less I understood O’Brien’s aims with this book.
Ultimately well-intentioned but too unfocused to make a huge impact.
If you think you will fare with it better than I did, you can pick up a copy of Girl here on Book Depository.