That’s right, another Women’s Prize longlister. (This is going to be a theme.) Next up for me was the last of the short titles: Edna O’Brien’s Girl; this was another book that I had low expectations for- and sadly, this time those expectations proved correct.
In the novel, Maryam is a young schoolgirl abducted, along with many female classmates, by members of Boko Haram, a violent religious insurgency group active in Nigeria. They are taken to a base camp, where Maryam is abused, made to work, encouraged to convert, and provided with a lifetime of nightmare material. Eventually she learns that even escape cannot free her from Boko Haram, as she struggles to find her way back to a home that cannot understand what her life has become and seems to have its arms closed against her.
” ‘You are no longer in that forest,’ he says. / ‘You weren’t there,’ I say hastily, too hastily. / I am shackled to it. It lives inside me. It is what I dream at night, with a baffled Babby slung across my belly, imbibing my terrors.”
Enter this book with caution, if you are planning to pick it up- the details are horrifying, and basically every trigger warning imaginable applies. (You can ask in the comments below if you’re wondering about anything specific!) The beginning of the book is actually the most brutal, in terms of abuse; I expected most of the novel to examine Maryam’s life in the camp, but in actuality only about a quarter of the story takes place there: the opening quarter.
Later on, this becomes more a tale of surviving in the hostile Nigerian bush, and then reentering a community inclined to hate victims for what has happened to them.
And yet, despite how brutal all of this content sounds, I struggled to stay invested while reading this book. I found the writing confusing and distracting with its frequent unexplained tense shifts. The first-person narration comes across surprisingly flat. Even with little knowledge of Boko Haram, the plot follows what seemed to me like a very predictable arc. Worst of all, for reasons difficult to pinpoint, the whole book struck me as disturbingly emotionless. It is possible some portion of my disengagement here is attributable to the current state of the world and a general difficulty in focusing, but this has without a doubt been my worst reading experience all month.
In the interest of having something positive to say about Girl, I did find the final quarter of the book the most compelling. This is the portion of the novel that depicts Maryam trying to assimilate back into a society isn’t quite sure what to do with her, and I appreciated it because it gave the best glimpse of how psychologically challenging this entire experience must have been for these Nigerian girls. Perhaps if the novel had taken an earlier approach into touching on Maryam’s mental state rather than simply listing all of the horrendous things that happen to her, I might have found it more compelling as a whole. Emotion is, of course, a subjective component in any writing, so this is not to say that anyone who finds more of it in Girl than I did is any way incorrect- I can only speak for my own experience.
“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.”
There is some debate going around on whether O’Brien was the right person to tell this story. I have some complicated and incomplete thoughts on Own Voices narratives at this point so I was wary knowing O’Brien had no personal connection or stake in this subject but was still willing to give the book the benefit of the doubt. At the end of the day, I think Girl is well-intended if slightly misplaced, and my biggest issue with it was that I didn’t find the story particularly readable; In that light, I don’t necessarily want to urge readers away from this book for its authorship, but I do think it’s important to pay attention to perspectives in what you’re reading and only expect from them what they are able to give. If Boko Haram is a topic you are interested in learning about, you don’t need to avoid this book, but I would urge that you don’t let your education stop here.
“When they burst into our dormitory we did not know who they were, but very soon we did. We had heard of them and their brute ways, but until you know something you do not know it.”
My reaction: 2 out of 5 stars. I don’t think the intent was ill-meant here, and I hope other readers are having better luck with the prose and storytelling of this book than I did. But unfortunately, I can’t think of any positives with this reading experience beyond the fact that at least it was a short book. I’ve read and enjoyed a short story by O’Brien previously so this won’t necessarily be my last brush with her work, but I must admit I’m not in a hurry to pick up her other novels after this experience. I hope this was the low point of the longlist for me, and that the rest of the titles will prove a bit more inspiring.
The Literary Elephant