book review: Girl by Edna O’Brien




GIRL by Edna O’Brien
FSG, 2019


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.

Women’s Prize 2020 reviews: Dominicana | Fleishman is in Trouble | Girl | Girl, Woman, Other | How We Disappeared | Red at the BoneWeather


48 thoughts on “book review: Girl by Edna O’Brien

  1. Oh how i hate the flashback thing in writing. Especially when it’s formatted with italics, as if that helps the abrupt switch. I am sorry you did not like this one, I am even more wary of it now. I really hope your next read is better! Great review!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. That excerpt is almost unreadable! I also strongly dislike novels that only exist to ‘raise awareness’ of a social issue or highlight ‘unheard voices’ – I don’t think it makes for good fiction (blog rant about this coming soon).

    Liked by 2 people

    • Isn’t it?!?! For SO MANY REASONS but the tense inconsistency was just impossible for my brain to process.

      Oh god I am SO excited for that blog post. I could not agree more. So many of these novels would work so much better as nonfiction!

      Liked by 1 person

  3. That excerpt…yikes!!! Based on your review, I suspect I’ll have issues with this one too (but I’ll still try to read it). I’m sorry you’ve been having an underwhelming WP-reading experience so far – hopefully it means you’re saving the most enjoyable books for last!

    Liked by 1 person

    • I KNOW the excerpt I selected was… particularly bad!!!! Very curious to see what you’ll make of this one. I agree, I think I’m (unintentionally) saving the best for last! At least I hope!

      Liked by 1 person

  4. I am slowing inching closer towards the “remove from TBR” button with every review I read. I sincerely think I’ll hate this book. Great review, it was great for putting my expectations in check!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Tbh if you don’t have your heart set on reading every single book on the longlist I think you can safely axe this one. That said, its one positive is that it’s VERY short!


  5. Since my main problem with O’Brien’s other writing was that it was too graphic/violent, I know I won’t read this one. It’s too bad that such a compelling and important story wasn’t told better. Especially since it sounds like O’Brien could have written a great essay about it all!

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Hmm, I don’t think I was sure about this one even before your review. The subject matter really put me off. I read The Little Red Chairs by Edna O’Brien a few years ago, and there were bits that were quite harrowing. However the checklist of horror and the disjointed nature of the prose really puts me off. I like her as a writer generally but I think I will give this a miss. Great review though.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I have a copy of Little Red Chairs that I’ve been wanting to get to – I hadn’t known that it was also so graphic! That’s disappointing. I’m ok with graphic violence sometimes but I felt like it never really justified its own inclusion in this book. I feel like she’s an author I could really enjoy, but this was not the right book to start with. I’d definitely encourage you to give it a miss.


  7. […] But where I felt this book really excelled was Jing-Jing Lee’s descriptions of Wang Di’s life as a comfort woman, but then also in the depiction of the aftermath.  The shame and stigma attached to these young women after they returned home was a heartbreaking thing to reckon with, but I felt the book was strengthened by Lee’s willingness to confront this head-on.  I know that we in the book community collectively feel a bit of fatigue where WWII novels are concerned, but I felt that this one was a worthwhile read – impeccably researched and harrowing while still providing a strong and compelling narrative.  (If you’re going to read one book about sexual slavery off the Women’s Prize longlist, make it this one instead of Girl.) […]


  8. Oh no. I was a bit wary, wondering what connection the author might have with this topic and what she could bring to it, but I was hoping an interest in the subject would help me find something to appreciate with this one. It sounds like there’s a lot not to like though. :/ I think I’ll pick this one up soon to get it out of the way.

    Liked by 1 person

    • There definitely is not a whole lot to like, unfortunately. I thought that best case scenario I’d love the book and feel conflicted about the authorship question, but that was not the case even a little.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Ugh, that was my best case scenario hope as well. :/ I think I’ll pick it up after Fleishman just to cross it off the list.

        Liked by 1 person

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