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Anne Enright on Edna O’Brien: Girl captures what it is to be vulnerable, female and young

Book review: moving portrayal of the Boko Haram kidnappings

Boko Haram: a 12-year-old girl fleeing an insurgency. Photograph: Fati Abubakar/Getty
Author: Edna O’Brien
ISBN-13: 978-0571341160
Publisher: Faber & Faber
Guideline Price: £16.99

“I don’t want to hear about your little life, okay?” This is what the late, great Toni Morrison used to tell her writing students, on the grounds, perhaps, that the world is a big place and the mirror a small one. Morrison believed it was important to make stories because stories enlarge humanity’s understanding of itself. “Narrative is radical,” she wrote, “creating us at the very moment it is being created.”

Edna O’Brien’s own life has been very far from “little”, and she has already written much of it down. At 88, the moment for memoir is in the past. She has come out the other side of her own story, perhaps and the world has opened up again. With the grand freedom of a late style, she has taken a remarkable new departure.

Girl, her most recent novel, is set not in the London where she lives, or the west of Ireland where she grew up, but in northern Nigeria, in the middle of the Boko Haram insurgency. This move is the kind of step few younger writers would have the courage to attempt – though for Edna O’Brien, courage has never been in short supply.

O'Brien has been criticised for imposing a lyrical style on tragedies that might have remained mute. But what can a writer do with slaughter but rise to meet it?

O’Brien has always written with a kind of recklessness; her sentences undo and redo language as they go. Here, for example, is the opening page of Night, published in 1972, where she gives and takes away on the same breath: “Half a lifetime. Felt, seen, heard, not fully felt, most meagerly seen, scarcely seen at all, and still in me, rattling, like a receding footfall.”


Edna O’Brien was more often accused of writing about sex than praised for being a modernist, though interiority and a sense of fragmentation are inherent to both activities, perhaps. This dive into the possibilities of language is not just a dive into the self, it is a creative disruption, one that allows new shapes and possibilities to form.

The shapes the books make are important. O’Brien likes to tell a story, or to take a story and tell it. In recent novels, these stories owe much to real events, and they are often also about disturbance and rupture. She has written about murder, and is interested in fear, dominance and war, and in the survival or destruction of the good.

The real world exists independently of our attempts to describe it, of course, and O’Brien has been criticised, in the past, for imposing a lyrical style on tragedies that might have remained mute. But what is a writer to do? This is a proper and moral question: what can a writer do with slaughter but rise to meet it?

Edna O’Brien. Photograph: Awakening/Getty

Girl, her most recent novel is, in some sense, a book O’Brien has earned through all the books that came before. In 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.

Girl is narrated by an unnamed young woman who is kidnapped by Boko Haram from her secondary school. She is imprisoned, enslaved, raped, married off. She has a baby. When an air-raid hits their camp, she takes her chance and escapes with a friend, the baby on her back, and together they make their way through an unforgiving landscape back to the place she used to call “home”.

All this happens in the first half of a book that is not long. The action is urgent and the pace swift. The second part of the novel is gentler, but no less moving, as the girl tries to fit back in to a place made uneasy by her presence, and realises she must move on.

There are few writers more capable of describing what it is to be repeatedly raped than O’Brien. “A butchery is being performed on me,” the girl says. The sentences do not linger. “When it was over we staggered back, sore, baffled.” And though it seems as though the events she relates are too catastrophic to leave room for emotion, O’Brien manages the emotional effects almost invisibly well.

Late in the book a woman is overseen begging a trader for a single pill. “Just for that one night, so that she could sleep.” We do not associate sleeping pills with African war zones. In this vignette, O’Brien hands us not the exotic, but the familiar, and an entire history is glimpsed, just there.

O'Brien puts all her might into seeing through her character's young eyes, and this involves forgetting much that she herself knows

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.

Along the way, the girl hears other tales, spoken by the victims of the war, and these accounts are included in the novel beside her own. These stories are told very simply, though the events they describe are disordered and relentless, and they bring a sense of witness to the book, giving it added integrity and weight.

Girl is also a story of motherhood, in all its ambivalence, and about the imperative we feel to love the people who come out of our bodies. The baby is not wanted, the baby is abandoned, then wanted again. O’Brien’s style is suited, not just to large actions, but also to these great swoops of feeling, where one thing can turn into its opposite and still make sense – there is no need for explanation.

Her language is so present in the moment – perhaps even overwhelmed by the moment – as to undo the workings of cause and effect. Rupture is a constant possibility. O’Brien is not afraid of convulsion, of cataclysm. In Girl, she rips the fabric of her characters’ life, as war and migration do to the lives of people every day. And ripping it up is something O’Brien is good at: she does it in order to make things new.

O’Brien also undoes and redoes herself as a writer. She has had many different careers, you might say, with many shifts through the years. There is a stage in life, we hope, when you can do whatever you like; when the gestures you make are made simple by the decades of work that preceded them. 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.