Edna O’Brien

Faber & Faber, £16.99

WHEN strangers rush into their dormitory one night, the Nigerian schoolgirls do not immediately know who they are. These armed men have disguised themselves as the school’s security guards, but by the time they have hustled their terrified captives into a truck, crying “Allahu Akbar”, there can be no doubt. The intruders are Boko Haram, intent on stealing them away into the forest, where they will be enslaved and turned into Jihadi wives.

Maryam, the narrator of this harrowing tale, opens her story starkly: “I was a girl once, but not any more.” Later, she is guilt-ridden at what her ordeal has done to her: “What had happened to the girl I once was? She was gone. There was no love left in me.” Even her infant daughter, Babby, fails to warm her heart. The title, it’s clear, refers as much to this newborn as to her mother, and perhaps to oppressed women everywhere.

With her 18th novel, Edna O’Brien, the matriarch of Irish fiction, has filled the space left by headlines and news bulletins about the fate of hundreds of African schoolgirls snatched by Jihadists. For some their sentence is unending, since they will never return home, perishing before they can be rescued, or left to languish in unspeakable conditions, remembered only by their loved ones.

On one level, O’Brien is to be commended for bringing the fate of such girls alive in passionate, furious detail. Girl is uncompromising in its depiction of what Maryam and women like her have endured: gang rape, assault, torture, execution by stoning, tongues cut out, forced marriage, all of it a return to savagery. As we witness in one grisly scene, childbirth is primitive and political, the arrival of a baby boy greeted with a celebratory fusillade of guns, a girl with stony silence. Not so long ago, in Scottish mining villages boys were referred to as a “hutch of coal”, girls as a “hutch of dross”. The Jihadists' denunciation and degradation of women is an echo of attitudes down the centuries in uneducated or fanatical societies.

Maryam is comparatively lucky. Picked out of a line-up, she is married off to a gentle young Jihadi. When he returns from battle so badly maimed that he must have his leg amputated, he helps her to escape with their baby before the compound is destroyed by Nigerian troops.

Rather than signalling the end of Maryam’s ordeal, the plot grows darker after she flees. Bad enough the misery of the gated camp. Now, she and her baby, along with a schoolfriend, must find their way through uncharted forest in search of help and home. It is not revealing too much to say that when Maryam is finally reunited with her mother, it is not the joyous finale you might have hoped for. There is still a long way for this child to go before she can outrun the stigma of her defilement.

Throughout all of this, the reader feels nothing but pity for the plight of a once hopeful, happy girl. It is not the power of O’Brien’s writing that arouses such emotion, however, but the heart-rending facts she relays. It would be a cold heart that did not respond with shock. Yet in literary terms, Girl is thin and unsatisfying, even though the theme plays to O’Brien’s lifelong concerns. Her focus on women’s position in the world was first articulated in The Country Girls in 1960, when she jibbed against Ireland’s repressive patriarchal religiosity. There, the writing was richly textured and persuasive, not overly dramatic. Here, instead, her style is staccato, brittle, by turns perfunctory or fervid: “I heard the cattle long before I saw them. It was a sort of thudding, the rapid clomping of the hooves on ground as they moved across the vast plains”, or “she quaked as if she was about to fall asunder, like the shredding pieces of a jigsaw”.

An unbridgeable distance lies between the novelist and the environment her narrator inhabits. Only when you consider Girl as a Greek tragedy does its tone begin to make sense. In her epigraph, O’Brien quotes from Euripides’ The Trojan Women, where Hecuba addresses the daughters of Troy who have been raped: “Here’s linen to clothe your wounds”.

It would appear that, as with her most recent novel The Little Red Chairs, her intention is to immortalise the wars that are waged on women’s bodies, be it in ancient Greece, the Balkans, Africa, or anywhere else where women are deemed disposable or lesser. No acts of kindness can repair the damage such violence has done. Yet, as a doctor tells Maryam, when she refuses to reveal what has happened to her, “One day, you will open your heart to someone”.

Girl, we are to infer, is Maryam’s unburdening. Her account of what she has been through makes painful reading, but it could also be a sign that finally she is beginning to heal.