Girl by Edna O’Brien
Published by Faber & Faber, 2019
My rating: ⭐
This novel is inspired by the real-life kidnapping of 276 schoolgirls at the hands of the terrorist organization Boko Haram in Nigeria, 2014. Given the subject matter being explored, and the extremist views of the group responsible for the act, this is understandably an upsetting read, with major trigger warnings for everything from rape and mutilation, to emotional abuse and murder.
From the off, I want to make clear that I found it difficult to reconcile my feelings towards this book. Aside from the obvious fact that the content is horrifying, making this the kind of book you’re never going to ‘enjoy’ anyway, its very authorship is grounds for possible discomfort. On the one hand, I have considerable respect for what O’Brien has set out to do. A vast amount of research has clearly gone into the novel’s creation, and it’s fuelled by anger, empathy, and humanity. Stories like this one need to be told, and I admire her for using her platform to try and spark conversation, and amplify voices that have otherwise been silenced. On the other, part of me will always feel this simply wasn’t her story to tell. For as long as marginalised groups are pushed out of the mainstream, it’s important that allies with the comparative privilege of an audience pave the way for ‘own voice’ literature. But I can’t deny an undercurrent of unease reading a story about real-life, modern-day enslavement, human trafficking, terrorism, and abuse in Nigeria, as interpreted by the gaze of the white, Western world. To justify her decision to write this story, O’Brien’s perspective needed to add some kind of additional insight that amplified things in some way. As it is, I was simply left wondering why a white, Irish author would choose to tackle this subject at all. The right to freedom of expression through fiction is always going to be a complex issue with no easy answers, and I can respect arguments on both sides of the debate. In this particular instance, I felt the author’s intentions were absolutely in the right place, but that she fell short of inhabiting the culture, experiences, and voice of her heroine in an authentic and believable manner.
Even looking beyond these hesitations, I had several issues with the book’s execution, unfortunately. In the first half, the pace is relentless, walking us through a rapid succession of ghastly events at breakneck speed, with no time given over to reflection or analysis. With nothing being granted the necessary space to breathe within the narrative, I was left feeling strangely numb to everything that was happening; the lack of emotional resonance particularly notable given the distressing nature of the subject matter. I can understand that this may have been a deliberate attempt to avoid gratuity, and to reflect the relentless nature of the girls’ suffering, but a book as heavy as this is begging for greater nuance. Indeed, though the pace slows down substantially in the second half, the look at the lasting impact of our heroine’s experiences is still very base level. Any semblance of character development is reserved for her desire to be a mother to the child she conceived in captivity, with little exploration of her own psyche, despite the huge amount of potential that lay in the trauma, PTSD, and survivor’s guilt that were merely hinted at. Without wanting to spoil any plot specifics, I will say the author did at least attempt to explore the ideas of lost innocence, societal stigma, and the long journey to freedom that lies beyond escape. But again, these threads lacked any kind of satisfying emotional connection.
On another negative note, however, O’Brien’s matter-of-fact prose also did little for me. Again, in fairness, the simplistic nature of the language and the dot-to-dot narrative style arguably make sense given context. After all, the book is written in the first-person from the viewpoint of a young woman who was robbed of the chance to even finish her education; it’s unlikely she would be concerned with showcasing much in the way of literary merit. From a reader’s perspective, however, greater linguistic beauty may have helped to counter the narrative’s immense darkness, and to lift the book well above the realm of shock value; something I can see several accusing it of from time to time. It also would have made the book’s listing for this year’s Women’s Prize for Fiction considerably more understandable.
In short, as much as I sympathise with what O’Brien likely set out to achieve, this just didn’t work for me on any level. Whether stylistic choices in search or realism or not, the spare approach to character, plot, and emotion kept me held at too great a distance. For a story that should have kicked me in the gut, I was left feeling frustratingly apathetic.
If you think you’ll have better luck with it, or you’re making your way through the Women’s Prize longlist like me, you can pick up a copy of Girl from Book Depository by clicking here.