The Only Girl in the World by Maude Julien | translated from the French by Adriana Hunter
Published by Oneworld Publications, 2017 (first published in 2014)
My rating: ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐
A classic example of a ‘stranger than fiction’ memoir, The Only Girl in the World recounts the horror of Maude Julien’s childhood, which was dominated by the strict rule of her tyrannical father. In his quest to create a new breed of ‘superhuman’, he forced his daughter to endure intense physical and emotional abuse, disguised as a series of bizarre trials, lessons, and training schemes. This book documents Maude’s efforts to endure, resist, and escape.
Harrowing and morbidly compelling to read, the book functions as an ode to the resilience of the human spirit, and the struggle to forge your own identity when so much of who and what you are is dictated by another.
I do think there are some flaws in the book’s construction, however. Written in first-person present tense, the author’s experiences are relayed to us as though from her younger self, but I found her sense of analysis and perception too vast to be believable as a child narrator speaking at a time of great trauma – not to mention that she was, at that point, almost entirely isolated from the outside world. In short, Julien’s adult retrospection clashes with her narrative approach. I also would have appreciated greater insight into Julien’s adulthood, post-escape, which is relegated to a brief epilogue. Exploring the lasting impact of her disturbing childhood could have been particularly fascinating and powerful. Instead, we got a lot of telling, rather than showing, as we moved through a succession of cruel tortures and betrayals inflicted upon a young girl.
All that said, the book ultimately aims to inspire, and for all its visceral upset, it manages to do so. I especially liked her insight into the wonder of literature, music, and animals when it comes to seeking comfort and solace. Far be it from me to judge which parts of her extraordinary life Julien chooses to share with us. Whilst from an impartial reader’s perspective, I felt the structure and narration could have served her story better, I applaud her for the openness and bravery that allowed her to defy the odds.
If you’d like to give The Only Girl in the World a go, you can pick up a copy from Book Depository by clicking here. If you’ve already read it, I’d love to hear your thoughts!