Off the Shelf: GIRL- A NOVEL
By Edna O’Brien, Review by Terry Kenneally
Farrar, Straus and Giroux ISBN- 9780374162559 2019 230 pp
In April 2014, Boko Haram kidnapped 276 schoolgirls from Chibok, a town in Nigeria. Boko Haram is a jihadist terrorist organization based in northeastern Nigeria. Boko Haram has killed tens of thousands and displaced 2.3 million from their homes. Irish author Edna O’Brien travelled to Nigeria and met some of the girls who had been taken by the group. From the experience her novel, “Girl”, came about.
“Girl” is narrated in the first person by Maryam, one of the schoolgirls kidnapped by Boko Haram. It opens with the live, “I was a girl once, but not anymore.”
The book begins when masked men invade the girls secondary-school dormitory, pretending to be soldiers come to protect them from the extremist insurrection raging in the country. The intruders, however, are the insurrection, and soon the girls find themselves in the back of an open truck hurtling through the jungle.
The girls are herded into an encampment, where they are subjected to a verbal diatribe by a fundamentalist emir; forced into hard labor; repeatedly assaulted by men who use rape as a drug with which to fire themselves up for battle.
The girls pray they will be rescued, pray to survive, and pray that they will not become pregnant. Maryam however, is one of the unlucky ones in that regard, and she is forced to marry the man who impregnated her. When she gives birth to a girl instead of a hoped-for boy, her standing in the community diminishes.
Eventually she escapes with her baby and a friend and finds her way back to her village, despite a series of challenges and horrors. Her troubles are not over, however, because it was one thing to be a former kidnapping victim and quite another to be the mother of a jihadi child. Women and girls released or who escape from Boko Haram captivity often face rejection upon returning to their families due to a culture of stigma around sexual violence.
O’Brien’s book is a novel of profound and ever-renewing empathy and grace of a girl who, after brutal abuse as a slave to Nigerian jihadists, escapes, and with dogged persistence, begins to rebuild her shattered life. Give O’Brien credit for the grit that inspired her, a woman in her eighties, to travel to Nigeria to listen to people’s stories. Edna O’Brien has written more than twenty works of fiction, several of which have been reviewed in this column over the years. Recently her name has come up as a possible Nobel Prize recipient in literature. “Girls” is an utterly unique achievement and this month’s TOP SHELF read.
*Terrence J. Kenneally is an attorney and owner of The Kenneally Law Firm in Rocky River, Ohio. He defends insureds and insurance companies in defense litigation throughout the state of Ohio. He received his Master’s in Irish Studies from John Carroll University and teaches Irish literature and history at Holy Name High School where he is also the President.