O'Brien has no intention of letting the reader look away, even for a second ... a stunning novel that forces us to confront one of the more shocking events of recent years. It's a painful read, but an absolutely essential one ... The book ends on a note that's hopeful, but realistic — O'Brien doesn't condemn her character to despair, nor does she seek to downplay the enormity of the brutality she's survived ... an exceptionally fast-paced book; O'Brien has long been known for writing that gets to the point and eschews superfluous language, and she continues that style here. This makes the novel feel all the more urgent, and the scenes of violence — which O'Brien renders with harsh, unrelenting detail — even more difficult to read. This is likely by design: O'Brien insists that her readers bear witness to Maryam's ordeal ... O'Brien refuses to shy away from the horrors that the Nigerian schoolgirls went through, but she also declines to give in to pessimism ... a perfect, and devastating, description of the persistence of trauma, its insistence on filling the space available to it — and Girl is a stunning novel, another remarkable achievement from one of the English language's greatest living writers.
In Girl [O'Brien]...makes the daring choice to tell this terrible tale in the protagonist’s own words—an 88-year-old Irish woman speaking in the voice of a barely pubescent Nigerian girl ... That choice feels natural because, despite the obvious contrasts in circumstances, this girl isn’t so different from O’Brien’s young Irish heroines. She lives in a world that’s testing her, daring her to survive ... Maryam's voice...[is] the deadened, illusionless voice of innocence abruptly lost, quickened here and there by little verbal sparks like morass and hurtled, signal flares of the soul ... Girl isn’t the book to read for the history of Boko Haram and its long assault on the peaceful citizens of Nigeria, or for a nuanced analysis of the country’s volatile politics ... Girl is the book to read for the sights and sounds and, yes, smells of some Nigerians’ harrowing experiences, and for a general sense of what it’s like to live in a world of radical, deadly unpredictability ...The novel hurtles, as its heroine is hurtled, from one thing to another and another and another, with deranging, near-hallucinatory speed. The random-seeming quality of the storytelling is something new for O’Brien, whose usual pace is more measured and contemplative. The effect is disorienting, and it’s meant to be ... The rhythm of Girl is intermittent and fearsomely strong; reading this novel is like riding the rapids ... O’Brien’s understanding of, and sympathy for, girls in trouble transcends culture—the place she’s made for them in her fiction is practically a country of its own.
Everything that O’Brien does memorably throughout her novels, she does here. There is the blend of economy and lyricism, vignettes tumbling over one another to disorient and energise the reader. There is the intense focus on the emotional lives of women on the sharp end of mental and physical incarceration or constraint, broadening out to sketch in the patriarchal and theocratic structures that hold them there. And there is the constant presence of bodily sensation and distress ... Were she simply to be claiming a right to write about what she wanted, she might well run into trouble. But there is an urgency in this novel, as in others preceding it, that indicates her subject matter is not a matter of writerly vanity—a wish to display versatility and range—so much as one of compulsion and duty. By the end of Girl, the reader feels assaulted by the horrors contained within it, but that, in a sense, is easy; the more important question is whether one can feel one’s empathy and understanding to have been enlarged. Here, once again, O’Brien pulls off that enormously difficult conjuring trick.
... 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 ... The action is urgent and the pace swift ... There are few writers more capable of describing what it is to be repeatedly raped than O’Brien ... 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 ... 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 ... 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 ... In this harrowing, swift tale, she has found the right task for her talent, at just the right time.
... bristling ... fast and focused and it inhabits Maryam’s point of view with unapologetic authority ... unflinching in her depictions of rape, though the dispatch and descriptive restraint of these scenes prevent them from seeming gratuitous. Maryam relives her story with a kind of numbed impartiality, as though recalling something from a great distance. Yet a striking effect of syntax belies her stoicism. Her narrative switches continuously between the past and the present tense, emphasizing the way her memories flood into the moment of their telling, as though they were happening all over again. You could call this compression of past and present the omnipresent tense, and it’s an ingenious way of evoking the feeling of recurrence suffered by trauma victims ... Still, stylistic virtuosity has a price, and in Girl it’s the sense of disconnection between Maryam and the novel’s poeticized language ... The formal elegance of this writing, with its alliteration and elevated diction, comes from the author rather than the character, and the sheen of artificiality may stop readers from fully releasing themselves to the dark spell of the tale.
Edna O’Brien’s troubling new novel...makes the recent craze for dystopia look frivolous ... The action is fast-moving ... O’Brien doesn’t spare our sensitivities...but describes the horror with eerie calm ... The glazed, stunned quality...gives the sense that there’s no longer any point questioning the details of a reality bent out of shape by sudden random violence ... This is a challenging novel in several senses: painful to read, it also lands— whether intentionally or not—as an intervention in recent arguments over cultural appropriation and the boundaries of fictional imagination. As late-career gambles go, it’s a bold one. Yet one senses O’Brien felt the story was simply too urgent not to put her gifts in its service. By the end, you can’t help but applaud the contradictory balance of tact and audacity by which she makes the horrendous source material unignorable.
...[a]compact and fearsome new novel ... O’Brien’s prose is as unwaveringly assured as ever...yet its customary operatic style is toned down. We are left with the bare, ghastly details of human endurance ... The depravity of certain scenes and the commodiousness with which they are rendered have aspects of the retelling of myth ... Yet we are jolted into the necessary reminder that this is the present day ... Maryam’s account (conveyed in a hidden notebook) of her ordeal is both succinctly detached...and wildly hallucinatory ... In this impeccably written and indelible novel, [O'Brien] brings her juristic yet merciful eye to an ever-wider expression of the deep injustices of female and human circumstance.
Celebrated Irish-born writer Edna O’Brien’s considerable achievement in her newest novel is to make forgotten people less forgotten, to render modern horrors less unfathomable ... her crystalline prose is unblinking, even when describing extreme violence ... Perplexing to me was the novel’s frequent, jarring and seemingly random switches between the simple past and simple present tense. With one major exception, Muslims in Girl are seen as depraved, misguided and ignorant, while Christians are mostly kind and charitable. Still, a tough and resilient girl such as Maryam would find it difficult to find a more brilliant writer than O’Brien to narrate her harrowing story.
Girl has the momentum of a nightmare. It’s written in a language that is spare and illusionless, as if O’Brien doesn’t have time for lyricism or narrative intricacies. Yet as we move from one circle of hell to the next, there are tiny moments of grace among the terror ... Girl is not without its flaws. Occasionally O’Brien switches from the past into the present tense for unclear reasons and the effect is often distracting. We also have little sense of the girl that Maryam might have been ... Yet what left me most unsettled was the abrupt conclusion, involving a kindly nun, which felt like wish fulfilment on O’Brien’s part ... Girl is a reminder that we turn to O’Brien for her clear eye as she faces the truths of our world.
... told in a prose so butter-smooth and sprueless it seems to have fallen fully-formed from O’Brien’s pen. The book’s sudden outbursts of stomach-turning violence come like speed bumps in the greater purl, made more jolting and haunting still by the terrible, clear-eyed maturity of the writing ... a punishing, relentless book, a gauntlet of neon-bright horrors, and yet O’Brien’s prose—and by extension Maryam’s voice—is capable of extreme delicacies, of a withy, caressing attention.
For much of Edna O’Brien’s new novel, Girl, it is easy to imagine it has been written by its protagonist and narrator, one of the Northern Nigerian schoolgirls who in 2014 were kidnapped and held as slaves by Boko Haram. That it is written by an 88-year-old Irish novelist who has lived most of her life in Britain and knows something of repression borne out of religion from her own experience in her homeland is a serendipitous meeting of author and subject ... Ireland is never mentioned in Girl, but the book is the product of a writer thinking of misogyny as a global force, and what’s more a force able to reach the fanatic heights represented by Boko Haram because the misogyny of everyday life gives that fanaticism something in which to take root ... None of this is to imply that Girl is a screed instead of a novel. It would offend O’Brien’s sensibility to reduce literature to a message. Girl is a superb example what fiction is supposed to be: an act of empathetic imagination ... O’Brien is writing in the time of a new shibboleth, a time when some very vocal though not particularly bright people are insisting that it is an act of arrogance or bigotry or theft to write in the voice of someone other than yourself. It is, we are told, cultural appropriation, usually by those who haven’t yet figured out that culture is appropriation ... [O'Brien's] defiance is not rebellion but fidelity to a deeper understanding of fiction ...Girl is Edna O’Brien saying, we must write — and read — about each other, or fiction will die.
It is true and it is tragic and it is almost unreadable ... it’s all true. Yet, bizarrely, the feminist must-read of the day is Margaret Atwood’s fictional account of made-up female subjugation in a Trumped-up state. The Boko Haram camp is the real Gilead, only it’s much, much worse. It too has forced marriages; as well as organised gang rape, girls are actually sold to rich Arabs by their captors. So why are we obsessed by Atwood’s fictional misyogyny when there are actual horrors happening to real girls, then and now? Read it if you can bear to.
It may be brave of O’Brien to take on such a grievous subject so far from her home turf, and it may be churlish to question the authenticity of her rendering of a tortured child’s plight; but it’s also hard to avoid comparing Maryam’s voice with the voice that Susan Minot conjured for a schoolgirl abducted by Joseph Kony’s Lord’s Resistance Army in Uganda for her 2014 novel Thirty Girls. Where Minot’s girl was heart-rendingly real, O’Brien’s Girl feels, rather, like a brilliant performance.
The real mistake, seen so often in travel writing, is to set foot on the promontory of an unfamiliar country, let a photogenic wave crash over you, and present yourself as the discoverer. O’Brien hasn’t done that here. Instead, some texture is absent from the Girl’s inner monologue, from the self-mythology that chants in the background of experience. There is a thinness, as if every third word is missing, which does odd things to her patented rich rhythms. While this could be waved away as the language of shock, trauma, being prised apart by unknown hands, it isn’t quite – and anyway we can’t know, since we don’t hear the voice of the Girl before she has been kidnapped. It is more the language of first encounter. If the Girl’s interior is a forest, neither do the trees there have names. Landscapes breathe out a book’s oxygen, and we turn a little blue here ... Survival instinct alone drives the Girl. Her life bites at her heels, and not a single choice she makes seems to spring from a distinct personality – and when that’s true, you don’t have a novel, you have a nature documentary, where a soothing voice narrates the fate of far-off prey ... a distrust enters into the reading. Would Maryam really describe one beautiful girl’s braids as snakelike, and another’s as being little serpents? ... in this context she does not know, so the narrative, instead of riding alongside like a horse or walking arm in arm with the main character, is a room lit by a single bare bulb, where the author is asking the Girl questions. Like this, was it like this, would it be like this? She does not have enough time with her; there are thousands of questions she will not get to ask.
With unflinching detail, O’Brien describes barbaric murders and gang rapes and deep soul damage. The story of Maryam’s survival, escape, struggle to find any shred of love left in her assaulted heart for her baby daughter, and grueling, politicized return, upon which mother and child are stigmatized and betrayed, is galvanizing and hallucinatory in its anguish and fear. There are flashes of beauty, wit, and succor here, too, as O’Brien’s extraordinary hero begins to heal in a land beset by psychotic violence ... O’Brien’s bravely investigated novel of a young woman overcoming epic torture is profoundly empathic, unnervingly human, and darkly exquisite.
...a feat of empathy and imagination ... Long associated with Ireland, O’Brien might spark questions of cultural appropriation with this excursion to Africa. But she has always dealt with women’s oppression as her thematic palette has expanded over the years, with her previous novel combining Balkan war crimes and the global refugee crisis. A heartbreaking tale and a singular achievement.
... the heart breaks over and over: this is a devastating read, horror and misfortune and injustice piling on its protagonist till you think you can’t bear it, till you remember how many real teenage girls have had to bear worse. Yet it’s told with a spare economy; never sentimentalised, nor sensationalised ... an astonishing act of imaginative empathy on O’Brien’s part, grounded in research trips to Nigeria, and interviews with people involved on the ground ... Crucially, you feel O’Brien is compelled to tell this story not for the sake of showing off that talent, but for the sake of too-often voiceless women ... O’Brien, probably wisely, doesn’t attempt to craft any slangy, youthful Nigerian voice, but even so, there are phrases that jump out as inescapably English and old-fashioned.
This novel is strikingly brave in two ways: first, in the fortitude of its writer...Second, the way, in these days of cultural appropriation, that O’Brien takes on the persona of a very young (she doesn’t know how old she is) kidnapped African girl, Maryam. But this book is at its core a misery memoir about the dreadful things done to women and girls in the name of religion. It’s hardly an area O’Brien can’t lay claim to ... This is a short sharp shock of a book, which cascades with the odd logic of a dream ... not fun and not for the squeamish ... The writing, though, is propulsive; the scenes short, angry and compelling. This is occasionally to Girl’s detriment: sometimes the urgency of the intruding voices, all telling their stories, means that the characters exist only to suffer, horribly and repeatedly ... O’Brien has worked hard to get inside the psyches of terribly damaged children — and the character of Maryam can seem rather flat as a result. Although this is undoubtedly psychologically accurate, Girl is not an essay, it’s a novel. Maryam suffers, but she doesn’t always live in the way, for example, Colson Whitehead’s Nickel Boys force themselves into rude existence beyond the confines of the page ... But there is so much fire in O’Brien’s writing ... In the end, it is the sheer beauty of O’Brien’s prose that makes this novel superb: the universality and the care with which she has always written about all women — girls, daughters and mothers — wherever they come from, and whoever they are.
... O’Brien tests fiction’s capacity to probe, through language, empathy and imagination, what reportage cannot ... In other hands, using fiction to tell the story of other people’s unimaginable pain would be exploitative. But O’Brien is one of the few writers who can make the case for fiction’s power in such circumstances ... The violence in the camp is charted in intense yet not gratuitous detail ... O’Brien’s descriptions of landscape are particularly rich...But she is at her most compelling when she voices Maryam’s interiority ... The cumulative power is immense.