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Novel set in NIGERIA (a true Nigerian nightmare)

5th April 2020

Girl by Edna O’Brien, novel set in Nigeria (a Nigerian nightmare)

Novel set in NigeriaGirl: Maryam, a young Nigerian girl, is abducted from her school dormitory by Boko Haram, and taken to a camp deep inside a desolate forest. Here, she and her friends are systematically raped and brutalised by the ideological war-crazed men. Taking a girl in every way is seen as a just reward for their commitment to the cause.

The horrors Maryam and the other virginal new arrivals endure in the camp are impossible to imagine, and challenging enough to read:

Very soon men began to foregather. They were young and frisky. They wore jeans and variously coloured T-shirts. It was clear that something was about to happen, which involved us, so we clung together. Then two men wheeled in a table and set it down in the middle of the compound, while a third man put a white plastic bucket underneath it. Only seconds passed but we guessed.

The author does not spare the reader the graphic detail of what happens next, as each new girl is ‘initiated’ in full view of the camp.

What happens in the ‘Blue House’, an old hunting lodge, is similarly brutal, just a little more private:

Two guards undressed me, scoffing that I was to serve one of the elites. He had noticed me come in. The hairs all down my body stood up in terror and they leant in over me, to have a look, excited and skittish.

“She wants it,” one said and the other repeated it, his face close to mine that I smelt the onions on his breath.

Again, we are not spared any details of the ordeal endured by Maryam, others taking their turn after the elite officer has finished, and ending only when the last one – ‘ outraged at having been kept waiting, and indignant at the mess that met him’ – has inflicted his own brand of horror on the girl.

The ritual stoning to death of the chief emir’s wife, accused of adultery, is celebrated as a spectacle. The description of this episode is succinct, almost clinical, though no less harrowing.

Maryam is chosen to be the wife of Mahmoud, his reward for having excelled in battle, and it’s not long before she gives birth to ‘Babby’. One horror follows another, but in some ways it’s the reaction of the outside world when she and Babby finally escape, that will appal the reader even more.

Maryam is tainted, and despised by everyone. Has she converted to Islam? Is she a terrorist in disguise? And having a child from them is unforgivable. After a tawdry jingoistic celebration of her freedom in the city, she is rejected by her own mother and rural community. Babby is separated from her.

A story of almost unrelenting misery and inhumanity ends at least with a glimmer of hope, but this is only relative to what has gone before.

Edna O’Brien took three years to write this short novel, including research during several trips to Nigeria. Late into her eighties, this book is a towering achievement. But am I blaspheming in suggesting that Girl is more akin to reportage than a novel?

All the themes she brings to the reader’s attention are wholly commendable, and embedded in discomforting truths. But where The Little Red Chairs wove a compelling story around another traumatic episode in history, Girl seems to me more like a series of horrific events, with a resounding message to the reader and to the outside world.

For lovers of TripFiction, Nigeria – whether dusty villages, the forests concealing so many horrors, or the brief foray into an animated city – is graphically described by the author. But this book certainly isn’t an encouraging story for the Nigerian Tourism Authority.

Edna O’Brien, author of ‘Girl’ – image courtesy of Antonio Olmos/The Observer

Literature as education, rather than entertainment. Nothing wrong with that, of course, but I favour entertainment.

Girl should carry a health warning: it is definitely not for the faint-hearted reader.

Andrew for the TripFiction team

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