TW: abduction, rape, extremism, death, violence. This review does not contain extensive discussion of these triggers, only mentions of them.
Girl by Edna O’Brien is an incredibly heavy book. I imagine that is made fairly clear by the above trigger warnings, but just to reiterate: this book is not for people who are triggered by anything surrounding abduction, rape, and extremism. Girl tells the story of a young woman named Maryam, who is one of the schoolgirls kidnapped by Boko Haram. While Maryam is fictional, the story told here is rooted in true experiences — though how accurate her exact experiences are I do not know. However, it is still based in fact, and I think it’s important the reader be aware of and prepared for that before going into this book.
A concern I had going into this book was whether Edna O’Brien was an appropriate author to write this novel. This book is absolutely not own-voices: O’Brien is an elderly Irish woman, and as far as I am aware, has no experience with the topics covered in this book. I understand that some readers would prefer not to read a book by a white woman about the trauma and suffering of Black girls, but it is also important to note that this book was heavily researched by O’Brien and handles the topics sensitively and depicts them without sensationalising them in my opinion. One thing O’Brien has written a lot about and is undoubtedly qualified to write about is women’s emotions and feelings, and this book is no different in that regard. I remain unconvinced that O’Brien was the best person to write such a story, but I do believe her work is carefully considered and presents the experiences of Maryam well.
The book itself is a fairly harrowing read, though I am glad that I read it because I think stories like this are important to tell. The extremism depicted in this book, and the similar extremist groups that have been active in the last few years is something that needs to be condemned. By raising awareness of the experiences the abducted girls went through, I hope that it will motivate more people to join the fight against radicalisation and extremism of this sort until it is completely eradicated. Most of the abducted girls were Christian schoolgirls, kidnapped by Boko Haram (a group who claim to be Muslim). They were married to Boko Haram fighters, raped by the soldiers, forced to follow Islam, and many died as a result. While groups like this can reinforce Islamophobic beliefs, it is important to remember that these groups do not represent Islam, and should absolutely not be considered representative of Islam. This isn’t really something directly addressed by the book, though I would have liked to have seen this included.
I personally wasn’t a big fan of the way that secondary characters’ stories were worked in as an italics section, because it was also often accompanied by a jump in tense that I found a bit jarring. I also didn’t feel as though the voices of these secondary characters came through fully in these extracts, making them all seem a little bit two-dimensional compared to Maryam, or even the other secondary characters who did not get sections in italics offering their backstory. These brief sections aside, I got on really well with O’Brien’s prose style itself, and I found myself getting through this book much quicker than I thought I would. Her style is very straightforward, and the character of Maryam was well-developed and interesting to read. Maryam’s ability to keep moving, keep surviving despite all the odds made this book really gripping, and I am glad that the book ended on a more positive note for her, rather than dwelling on her trauma.
A criticism I have seen a few reviewers make of this book is that it would have been better as an essay, or as a collection of memoirs, and I do agree with this idea. O’Brien interviewed some of the abducted girls as a part of her research for this book, and I think that a collection of memoirs in their words, or an essay in O’Brien’s words using the real experiences of these women would have been a better-suited format for this piece. As it is, I cannot say how much of Maryam’s experiences in the book were realistic. Her husband, for instance, is portrayed as treating her well: is this realistic? Is Maryam’s escape realistic, or was it invented by O’Brien to drive the narrative? It’s tricky to know how many of these details were drawn from real experiences, and how much of them are down to the author’s license to invent and fictionalise.
Overall, this is definitely a book that is worth reading, and the perspective it explores is really important. As I said, I do think a Nigerian author would be a better person to write this story, and I would have liked to have known how much of this account is fictionalised. Enjoy is the wrong word for this kind of book, but it is a book I felt like I took a lot from, and one that I will be thinking about for a long time to come.