Girl, the newest novel from Edna O'Brien, starts out with one of the most powerful passages the legendary Irish author has ever written. "I was a girl once, but not any more," the narrator, Maryam, says. "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."
The paragraph serves as notice that O'Brien has no intention of letting the reader look away, even for a second. Girl, inspired by the 2014 mass kidnapping of Nigerian schoolgirls by the jihadist group Boko Haram, is a stunning novel that forces us to confront one of the more shocking events of recent years. It's a painful read, but an absolutely essential one.
The novel is narrated by Maryam, a student at a boarding school in northeast Nigeria. She and her schoolmates are awakened by a flurry of gunfire; men storm into their dormitory, claiming to be soldiers sent to protect them from violence in their town. It doesn't take long for the gunmen to drop the illusion; when the girls begin to cry, one terrorist begins "cursing and taunting us, calling us names, saying we were sluts, prostitutes, that we should be married and soon we would."
The gunmen load the girls into trucks, and take them to a jungle encampment. They're given uniforms, told their families will never be able to find them, and ordered to convert to Islam. "I was unable to pray in my old tongue, as they bombarded us with their prayers, their edicts, their ideology, their hatred, their God," Maryam recalls.
It doesn't take long for things to get worse. Maryam and her schoolmates are repeatedly raped by the terrorists, once at gunpoint: "I both died and did not die," she says. "A butchery is being performed on me. Then I feel my nostrils being prised open and the muzzle of the gun splaying my nose. I know now that within minutes that gun will explode inside my head. I will not wake from this, I will die with my scream unfinished."
Maryam is forced to marry one of the terrorists, and gives birth to a girl she names Babby. She manages to escape the camp along with Buki, a fellow prisoner; they wander the jungle in desperate search of water, food, someone, anyone, to help them. Buki is killed by a snakebite before she can find deliverance.
At long last, Maryam eventually finds help, and she's reunited with her family. The homecoming is bittersweet, though; she's learned that her brother and father have been killed, and her mother — now living with Maryam's cruel uncle — resents her. The book ends on a note that's hopeful, but realistic — O'Brien doesn't condemn her character to despair, nor does she seek to downplay the enormity of the brutality she's survived.
Girl is an exceptionally fast-paced book; O'Brien has long been known for writing that gets to the point and eschews superfluous language, and she continues that style here. This makes the novel feel all the more urgent, and the scenes of violence — which O'Brien renders with harsh, unrelenting detail — even more difficult to read. This is likely by design: O'Brien insists that her readers bear witness to Maryam's ordeal.
In some parts of the book, Maryam's narration switches from past to present tense, which is particularly striking when she recounts the horrors she endured. The nature of trauma, O'Brien seems to suggest, is that it refuses to stay in the past; its survivors live it over and over again. Another technique O'Brien uses to similar effect is using periods instead of question marks when Maryam is in the depths of despair: "Will I ever know the language of love. Will I ever know home again," she asks at one point, the period perhaps indicating that the question is moot, that she's trapped inside her own learned helplessness.
O'Brien refuses to shy away from the horrors that the Nigerian schoolgirls went through, but she also declines to give in to pessimism — the heart is resilient, she seems to say, capable of enduring great pain, even if that pain never goes away. "I am shackled to it," Maryam declares at one point. "It lives inside me. It is what I dream at night, with a baffled Babby slung across my belly, imbibing my terrors." It's a perfect, and devastating, description of the persistence of trauma, its insistence on filling the space available to it — and Girl is a stunning novel, another remarkable achievement from one of the English language's greatest living writers.