Girl by Edna O’Brien

Edna Obrien pic
Irish writer, (Josephine) Edna O’Brien

Girl is a first person account of Maryam, a very young girl, who with many others are kidnapped by members of Boko Haram, an ultra extremist sect of Islam in West Africa, although in the text it is only known as The Sect. She escapes, wonders aimlessly in the forest with her baby daughter, is discovered, returned to her mother who doesn’t recognise her. Does she also need to escape her family?

There’s an issue with this book that goes to the heart of what fiction is. O’Brien travelled to Nigeria twice to research this novel. She’s just turned 89. She said …

So one day I was in a waiting room (Doctor’s ) and I read a small item in a newspaper while I was waiting which said: A girl called Amina Something Something was found in Sambisa Forest wondering with her baby with nothing to eat, didn’t know her name and didn’t know where she was. And for some reason that’s inexplicable to me, I thought: I have to write that story. I didn’t think it when I first read about the girls, or when I heard about the hashtag #BringBackOurGirls. There was something about the girl alone in a forest that resonated with maybe lived and maybe imagined experience inside me.

The book is difficult to read. Her kidnapping, multiple rapes, witnessing a woman stoned to death, treated like a slave, mistreated and ignored by other women (perhaps the saddest blow), rendered invisible, are described vividly, if not in detail, although the detail she does share is certainly enough. It is confronting to think that human beings can treat other human beings like this. Yet, she was treated like this because she was a girl. Her forced marriage comes almost as a relief. Even her escape with her baby daughter was treacherous, misunderstood, and almost unbelievable, as well as unbelieved. Her reunion with her mother is distressing: they don’t know each other any more.

It is written as fiction – the word fiction implies untruth – yet we are lead to believe that these things actually happened to the girls who were kidnapped by Boko Haram in Nigeria in 2014. O’Brien met them, talked to them, heard their stories, wrote them down. And yes, I believe these things did actually happen to those girls, so I suppose, my question is why did she choose the novel form to tell her story? She is a writer of novels so perhaps she thought of no other way.

If you are in any way squeamish about violence, extreme sexual violence, on the page don’t read this book, or if you are, but do, its fiction label may give you some reprieve.

In order to explain the abundance and importance of truth in fiction I have often used the line, Fiction is about truth but to make it clear one has to lie about it a little. This still holds true.

And, yes, as O’Brien admits in her Acknowledgments, Maryam, her creation is an amalgamation of ‘the imaginative voicings of many through one particular visionary girl.’

So yes, this is fiction, Maryam in untrue, but her story is not.

Edna O’Brien’s first, and most (in)famous book, The Country Girls, came out in 1960. She has been a writer all her adult life, but as she says, the first was easy, it had been welling up inside her all her young life, she wrote it in 3 weeks, but each book is harder than the previous one. This one took three years and it may be her last.

If you search for her on YouTube you will find many fascinating interviews. Here’s one from the early 1990s to get you started.

You can find various editions of Girl and her other works here.

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