Edna O’Brien, ‘Girl’ and the author’s right to freedom of movement

The adage ‘stay in your lane’, beloved of creative writing and journalism circles, has become a mantra for a generation seeking to navigate an era of fast-moving identity politics. It pushes against a tendency more common to writing of the past, of the majority-white, upper-middle-classes spokespeople of an elitist media proffering their inexpert opinion on any given subject. Staying in one’s lane refers to the tendency by which we each recognize the limitations of our knowledge, and straying outside of it can lead to fairly justified reprisals from an army of online commentators. So how do we square this with the latest offering from Irish novelist Edna O’Brien, which sees her veer wholly outside of her lived experience, yet emerge, I think, triumphant?

Girl is told from the perspective of a fictional Chibok schoolgirl kidnapped by Boko Haram in the north-eastern state of Borno, Nigeria. Maryam’s account of events that beset the region in 2014 is partial and fragmentary. Much like Cora in The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead, she navigates survival through the snatches of information gleaned from the various communities she joins and is more often discarded from. The passage of time and her chances of survival are only inferred from the passing comments of those she encounters – the jihadists, a nomadic tribe, the police, the military, the Church and her family. O’Brien’s preternatural gift for dialogue is no secret, and building on the vernacular tradition of the early epistolary novels and the eerie, partial accounts of the early gothic, she understands more than any living writer the power of incomplete tittle-tattle, with gossip hounds being a common feature of her novels. In this sense, her stories are given to us piecemeal, mimicking the way that we receive them in the real world: through whispers, rumour and aspersion on the part of her fallible, third-party narrators. The gossip hounds of rural Ireland are really no different to those of rural Nigeria after all, even if the religious context has shifted slightly, and Maryam’s escape from the jihadists comes laden with its own barrage of spitefulness and scorn. Like many of O’Brien’s protagonists, her suffering is not just caused by the initial abuse but by the barbed comments of the neighbourhood watch committee, whose judgement is eternal.

Most haunting of all is an encounter marked by its lack of dialogue, however, when having escaped the jihadists’ compound and fleeing through the forest, Maryam and her friend try to attract the attentions of a flying object only to recognize that its sharp, jolting movements are that of a drone. Rarely would we as Westerners encounter the true horror of a military drone from the ground, and not just its violent potential either, but its false mimicry of a sentience, its lurching movements belying a fundamental stupidity. It is the dawning shame of having projected so much hope on to an inanimate object that leaves the girls feeling dehumanized and hollow; the realization that even beyond their acute agony lies a world of much more banal horror, where technological progress reigns supreme.

Likewise, depictions of death are made all the more poignant by their matter-of-fact delivery, and the speed with which Maryam is forced to endure and then forget the grief directed towards so many fallen friends. If a chief complaint of the information age is that the sheer onslaught of footage that we are exposed to via the two-minute segments on our news websites desensitizes us to the suffering of others, then O’Brien would seem to have found a remedy. What we lack in reporting isn’t just the details – the familial breakdowns, the personal grief, the loss of human connection and love – but the fundamentally psychedelic aspect of trauma, which few writers have ever been successful in relaying. Perhaps Hamsun. Perhaps Hesse. Perhaps Didion in her later writing on grief. In Girl, O’Brien is lucid on the psychological miasma of trauma and how the tectonic plates of identity, once prised apart, are seldom brought back together into any cohesive whole. In assembling the tough exterior needed to survive her ordeal, Maryam’s greatest challenge comes in its dismantling. How do we love in the face of so much horror, and vanquish our defences for the sake of our sanity?

O’Brien, in exploring the supernatural leaps of imagination required for any survivor of such extreme horror, never resorts to embellishment, or sentimentality. She is goading us always to confront a reality that we have so far had the luxury of ignoring, or else forgetting it with the press of a standby button. She is saying to us: there is no looking away, not if, as we claim to be, we are champions of all that is humane and just. Complacent in our luxury and free to declare ourselves allies to any number of progressive causes in only the most superficial of terms, without forfeiting any of our privileges or protections, will we nevertheless ignore the reality of those used as collateral in war? Of the continued suffering of women in other parts of the world?

Few writers can venture into these waters with the same deftness and sleight of hand as O’Brien. Since her earliest novels, she has schooled us in the depth of emotion capable of being unleashed through a few choice words – candid without ever being caustic, astute without being cold. Historically, she might not be an expert of Nigerian politics, but she is certainly up there with the best of our correspondents on the subject of trauma, sex and women’s bodies – Bureau Chief of the International State of Women’s Suffering. But her economy of expression belies a huge amount of investigative and journalistic work, too. Spending weeks at a time in Nigeria, she met survivors of the Boko Haram attacks and visited Abuja and Jos, staying in a convent and visiting women’s groups and two Faluna camps. She credits many writers, journalists, NGO and charity workers in helping her to obtain the information she needed, among them the author Teju Cole, whom she seems to have developed something of a longstanding admiration for and friendship with, as well as the brilliant journalist Sally Hayden.

To write a novel of this stature takes a village, and O’Brien is never too proud to admit it. Like the best of fiction, Girl is a clean block of ice belying a vast berg that stretches miles into the ocean. There is no detail that is unnecessary. O’Brien never burdens her narrative with extraneous facts for the sake of delivering a news report, or worse still, demonstrating the extent of her knowledge. She is a storyteller, after all. A bringer of feeling and emotion. That said, one leaves with a fairly sound understanding of the events that took place and the dynamics that led to their happening.

The ‘stay in your lane’ adage is therefore useful insofar as it steers those of us who occupy the more precarious world of freelance writing and online journalism: the stack-’em-high-and-sell-’em-cheap modes that leave little room for extensive research. With patience and respect, acts of solidarity are still possible through literature, traversing differences of nationhood and experience, but only through a level of expert handling that I worry is sadly on the decline. This totemic work of empathy and imagination seems to represent an old vanguard that will not be replaced; whose efforts can’t be built on by even the leading lights of a younger generation who will not be insulated from financial struggle in the same way as their predecessors, and whose precariousness compromises their ability to confidently sew together narratives that might span years of research and multiple visits to foreign countries. Girl is a book that is poignant for many reasons, not least because it shines a light on the flimsiness into which so much of literature has been plunged on account of market forces.

It’s title too – Girl – on the one hand refers to the anonymity of abuse and trauma, the disinherited state to which Maryam is reduced by her tormenters. It speaks of the commoditization and dehumanization of women everywhere, while prompting questions of innocence, or lack thereof, and the labels we’re designated on account of virginity, rape, pregnancy, disfiguration and, finally, rest. But it also functions as a sly joke from O’Brien – a nod to her earliest novels, the Country Girls trilogy, and the ongoing struggle to document women’s suffering. In this sense, Girl also appears as something of a homecoming and a reflection on her career as a writer more broadly. It demonstrates a circling back on the themes that initially prompted her career, and her lifelong commitment to exploring the most painful parts of the female experience without apology or compromise; it opens with a line that could easily have been spoken by O’Brien herself, and not Maryam, in claiming that ‘I was a girl once, but not anymore’. Which, in its coupling with a final passage that summons the heavens, the gods and all eternity, reminds us of Prospero in the final words of The Tempest, echoing Shakespeare’s own sentiments in asking the audience to free him of the stage, and the medium to which his life had been devoted.