The novel is short and spare, and its title, Girl, sounds abstract, even generic. The setting of the story is unspecified, though it’s clear enough. It’s Nigeria, and more or less now, during the reign of terror of the Islamist insurgency group Boko Haram, here referred to simply as the Jihadis. The girl of the title, however, does have a name, Maryam, and so do many of the other suffering girls and boys and men and women whose stories are told in passing in this mournful book—people rousted from their homes or, like Maryam, from their schools; people captured or set wandering in an unforgiving landscape. Their oppressors and even their putative saviors in the government and the army remain anonymous. The beleaguered and the beset-upon are the ones who count in Girl, as always in the stories Edna O’Brien has been telling for the past six decades. “We were at the rim of existence and we knew it,” Maryam says at one point, and that scary place, where a girl is alone with herself and a dubious future, has ever been O’Brien’s favored territory—her unnameable home.
When she made her sensational debut as a novelist, with The Country Girls (1960), O’Brien was telling the story of girls much like herself, growing up in the beauty and superstition and stifling piety of Ireland’s west country and trying to fight their way to another sort of life. That novel, which was a wee bit franker about the sexual longings of nice Irish Catholic girls than her countrymen were used to, was promptly banned in Ireland, as were its two sequels—The Lonely Girl (1962) and Girls in Their Married Bliss (1964)—and, for good measure, her next three novels as well. (Years later, she discovered that her own mother had redacted her personal copy of The Country Girls, blacking out offending words and phrases.) Like her contemporary Philip Roth, who later became a fast friend, O’Brien wrote about the messiness of sex and the paradoxes of cultural identity in ways that seemed to get under people’s skin, in language so luxuriant and intimate that you couldn’t deny the power of the feelings being described. And like Roth, she never quite cast off the whiff of scandal that clung to her earliest fiction. She learned, as he did, to wear it with a certain bemused pride.
O’Brien scandalizes by other means now. Her two most recent novels, The Little Red Chairs (2015) and Girl, find her taking on subjects that a writer of her years and stature might sensibly avoid as too grim: Serbian war crimes in The Little Red Chairs, and now the barbarities of Boko Haram. In Girl she even 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. (Maryam isn’t quite sure how old she is.)