How would you regain your faith in humanity after you’ve been through a traumatic experience that changes your view of the world? Some victims are able to recover; others may not. It’s what happens between the initiating and concluding events that determine everything. Award-winning Irish novelist Edna O’Brien brings an unimaginable nightmare to a head in her latest novel, Girl, a work of fiction loosely based on the 2013 kidnapping of schoolgirls in Nigeria by Boko Haram terrorists.
The story revolves around Maryam’s firsthand accounts of what she went through during her hellish experience. She’s able to write about it because she hides her diary from her captors, and everything she puts down is nightmarish. Maryam and her schoolmates are told they’re only worthy of serving the men around them for pleasure, cooking, cleaning, and giving birth to children. Male children, that is.
Every moment of Maryam’s existence is defined by the actions of others and forces beyond her control. She dissociates from her schoolmates as her prayers to be rescued slowly dissipates. Lessons are dispensed in the compound she’s held in as evidenced by a woman who was stoned to death for looking at the jewelry from a raid. The coldness of this so-called religious society remains embedded in Maryam’s memory, and now in ours.
The lack of compassion isn’t limited to her kidnappers though, as even fellow schoolmates turn their backs on her when she’s forced to marry one of the soldiers. It’s fascinating how quickly people you once counted on can disappear if what you’re doing doesn’t align with their wishes. Perhaps it was their own way of dissociating from the situation. In order to survive, Maryam has to fall back on recounting happy memories about her family in better times.
I feel this dissociation bleeding through her words, and it saddens me because it’s our connection to humanity that makes us come alive. She cherishes little in this life, except for her baby, but she does end up making friends with another girl named Buki, and together they manage to escape the compound as it’s being bombed. But even then Maryam can’t relax and enjoy her life because even when she does receive help, there’s the constant worry soldiers will come marching out of the woods to reclaim her.
Human beings can be cruel but it’s worse when their cruelty revolves around religious or inconceivable reasons. And just when it seems Maryam has nothing left to lose, people find a way to snag another piece of her soul. It’s understandable why she becomes detached from the world and the people around her. The tragedies kidnapped Nigerian girls faced were relentless, leaving little room to breathe. Then again, circumstances like the ones they went through aren’t for the faint of heart. The inclusion of snippets of the real Chibok schoolgirls gave it the realism needed to ensure this whole situation isn’t to be taken lightly.
The chaotic madness of Girl left me with a headache and made me question my own sanity, yet it was enthralling. Maryam’s experiences were like a bad fever dream, the kind where you pray everything isn’t real and hope for a light at the end of a very painful tunnel. Her fight for survival is admirable, especially when people seemed to care so little about her. Edna O’Brien does her best to find hope in the midst of sadness and misery, and we can only hope the real girls who managed to survive these horrific circumstances have the same amount of fight within them to keep living. Because if we can’t truly enjoy our lives, then are we really living?