As in her stunning last novel, The Little Red Chairs, about a Balkan war criminal who moves to an Irish village, she has set herself one of the greatest challenges a writer can face: to plumb the darkest depths of the human soul. She has triumphantly succeeded. Hypnotic, lyrical and pulsating with dark energy, Girl is a masterful study of human evil by a writer who, at 88, is still getting better. It will blast you with its searing, savage beauty.
O’Brien doesn’t spare our sensitivities – the opening pages feature gang rape, a mass live burial, a stoning – but describes the horror with eerie calm. When Mahmoud gives Maryam a veil “as a gift”, the narrator thinks: “… they must have looted it from one of the shops in a town before torching it. It did not smell of burning. How many girls had looked at it in a shop window and dreamed of owning it and where were those dreams now. Lost in an infinite nowhere. And where were those who had dreamed them.”... As late-career gambles go, it’s a bold one. Yet one senses O’Brien felt the story was simply too urgent not to put her gifts in its service. By the end, you can’t help but applaud the contradictory balance of tact and audacity by which she makes the horrendous source material unignorable.
Girl is an astonishing act of imaginative empathy on O’Brien’s part, grounded in research trips to Nigeria, and interviews with people involved on the ground – and many of the Chibok schoolgirls themselves. Anticipating criticism that this is not her story to tell, she came out with fighting talk in an interview: “I do not subscribe to that devious form of censorship … The world is crying out for such stories to be told.” This is surely right – if they are distilled with this much care and respect, by such a talent. Crucially, you feel O’Brien is compelled to tell this story not for the sake of showing off that talent, but for the sake of too-often voiceless women.
O’Brien has worked hard to get inside the psyches of terribly damaged children — and the character of Maryam can seem rather flat as a result. Although this is undoubtedly psychologically accurate, Girl is not an essay, it’s a novel. Maryam suffers, but she doesn’t always live in the way, for example, Colson Whitehead’s Nickel Boys force themselves into rude existence beyond the confines of the page.... In the end, it is the sheer beauty of O’Brien’s prose that makes this novel superb: the universality and the care with which she has always written about all women — girls, daughters and mothers — wherever they come from, and whoever they are.
O’Brien’s descriptions of landscape are particularly rich – “a vast violet expanse of sky, a land of beauty that has become a place of woe”. But she is at her most compelling when she voices Maryam’s interiority... Maryam’s own narrative incorporates hints of fairy tale, of the Bible and of Greek tragedy, mingling distinct religious and cultural traditions with jarring reminders of the contemporary, to form a diction all its own.
n it, the freshness of her prose is met by the innocence of her narrator and the freedom of her language by the chaos of the events it describes. O’Brien has hit the sweet spot where story and style agree. The life she imagines and presents to the reader is one of unimaginable horror and she does not shy away... The descriptions of camps and convents are so immediate and deftly sketched as to come straight from O’Brien’s own observations, but they also manage to seem unfiltered by her western adult gaze. O’Brien puts all her might into seeing through her character’s young eyes, and this involves forgetting much that she herself knows. The triumph of the book is in the voice of the narrator, who is just as articulate as she might be. The book has a huge storyteller’s energy and O’Brien does not patronise – she really has entered the heart of this girl. But the prose is also pared down (for O’Brien) and this makes the story feel universal, as though she has arrived at some essence of what it is to be vulnerable, female and young... O’Brien’s late style is as easy and untrammelled as you might expect of her, but Girl is also wonderfully impatient and deft. Her sentences have been pared to the bone. In this harrowing, swift tale, she has found the right task for her talent, at just the right time.
Everything that O’Brien does memorably throughout her novels, she does here. There is the blend of economy and lyricism, vignettes tumbling over one another to disorient and energise the reader. There is the intense focus on the emotional lives of women on the sharp end of mental and physical incarceration or constraint, broadening out to sketch in the patriarchal and theocratic structures that hold them there. And there is the constant presence of bodily sensation and distress...By the end of Girl, the reader feels assaulted by the horrors contained within it, but that, in a sense, is easy; the more important question is whether one can feel one’s empathy and understanding to have been enlarged. Here, once again, O’Brien pulls off that enormously difficult conjuring trick.
During her time in Nigeria, O’Brien decided that the “only method” of telling the story “was to give the imaginative voicings of many through one particular visionary girl”. And so we follow our narrator from the school abduction, through the forest, to the isolated camp where she endures near-nightly multiple rape, starvation and forced marriage. The “Girl” becomes pregnant and eventually breaks free, but finds herself on a long and terrifying journey in search of help and home. O’Brien writes sensitively of stigmatisation and of institutional and governmental neglect, and in doing so captures important stories about how escape does not always mean freedom. Many of the survivors have been shunned or vilified by their communities, seemingly “contaminated” by their contact with the militants.
Novels are journeys, voyages of exploration and a movement towards understanding, for the characters of course, but also for the writer and the reader. The writer in this case was in her mid-eighties when she embarked on this journey. There is a tendency, hard to avoid, for a patronising note to enter any review of a novel by a very young or very old author. But nobody surely is tempted to write about O’Brien in that way; it would indeed be utterly absurd. Even to say that one is staggered by her enduring vitality, keen intelligence and range of sympathy seems otiose. Her writing remains as vivid , imaginative and gorgeous as it was in her brilliant youth.
This is not the first time that O’Brien has taken on true stories. In the mid-1990s she wrote three books based on dark criminal events in Ireland, and her previous novel, The Little Red Chairs, was an ambitious work about a Balkan war criminal and his involvement with an Irishwoman. But Girl, with its brilliantly evoked Nigerian setting and its tight, poetic structure, is an enterprise on another level. With this book, O’Brien has come full circle. Part simple reportage, part poetic evocation, deploying language and imagery drawn from European and African mythology, Girl gives us a heroine through whom we encounter first the evil of which human beings are capable and then, slowly and tentatively, the good.
O’Brien has built her career on articulating the unspeakable, deliberately seeking out difficulty. It’s hard to think of another author who would take such a risk so late in life. Yet it’s not hard to spot the themes that recur in her fiction: male rage, women’s oppression, the prohibitions of religion, the judgments of small communities, shame and estrangement. The same figures crop up too: women keeping children alive against the odds, unforgiving mothers and nuns as saviours. Even the civil strife in Nigeria feels familiar from O’Brien’s writing about Ireland.
O’Brien has made a brave choice too. In this impeccably written and indelible novel, she brings her juristic yet merciful eye to an ever-wider expression of the deep injustices of female and human circumstance. One is reminded of Bertolt Brecht: “There will also be singing. About the dark times.”
O’Brien strangles at birth any potential accusations of cultural appropriation through the sheer violent beauty of her writing, which often depicts a desperate Maryam in a sort of fugue state, her grip on time and events feverish, and lends her story imaginative authenticity.