Verdict: Seriously awful.
My rating: 1 out of 5 stars
Published by Faber & Faber, 2019
I was a girl once, but not any more.
So begins Girl, Edna O’Brien’s harrowing portrayal of the young women abducted by Boko Haram. Set in the deep countryside of northeast Nigeria, this is a brutal story of incarceration, horror, and hunger; a hair-raising escape into the manifold terrors of the forest; and a descent into the labyrinthine bureaucracy and hostility awaiting a victim who returns home with a child blighted by enemy blood. From one of the century’s greatest living authors, Girl is an unforgettable story of one victim’s astonishing survival, and her unflinching faith in the redemption of the human heart.
I hated this. There is no way around this. I thought this was pretty damn awful and the longer I sit with it, the less I understand how this book was longlisted for the Women’s Prize. I am not touching the “should O’Brien have been the person to write this particular story” controversy with a ten-foot pole except to say it would have been easier to defend that decision if the book that resulted was good in any shape or form.
O’Brien sets out to tell the story of one of the school girls abducted by Boko Haram and she does not shy away from showing just how horrific that ordeal must have been. The book is relentless in its depiction of atrocities; in fact the first third is pretty much comprised of only that. However, weirdly enough, I found the second part of the story, after the protagonist returns home, actually a lot worse. I found the way in which her mother is characterized horrifying (and here having an own voices author would have made this decision feel at lot less voyeuristic and judging).
I do not get on with books that set out to teach me something – while I love the power literature has to broaden my horizon and to let me see lives outside my own, paedagogical books irk me. If I want to learn something, I gravitate towards non fiction – and as a piece of non fiction this might have actually worked for me because then the story told would have been just that: authentically mirroring the reality. As it stands, I questioned a lot of authorial decisions O’Brien made here (why is everybody so uniquely awful? Do we really need to only see awfulness?).
I also do not get on with books that set out to tell a horrifying story just to tell a horrifying story – and this felt like this. While reading it, I actually wondered if O’Brien had decided that trying to write a good book, sentence or style wise, would detract from the horror she was depicting. This is a pretty petty way to say that I was baffled by how bad the prose was. While I do kind of see why she chose to switch between tenses (it does add to the feeling of a fractured state of mind her protagonist has), overall I found this choice clumsy and the writing lacking. And in the end, this was what stuck with me: how can a book be this badly written and nominated for a major award? Even aside from the narrative problems I had with this and the question of authorship, this was just not well written.
Content warning: Rape, stoning, involuntary pregnancy, horrifying birthing scene, humiliation and pretty much everything you can imagine.
I am reading the Women’s Prize for Fiction longlist this year. My current ranking is as follows:
- Actress by Anne Enright (review)
- Girl, Woman, Other by Bernardine Evaristo (review)
- Weather by Jenny Offill (review)
- A Thousand Ships by Natalie Haynes (review)
- Red at the Bone by Jacqueline Woodson (review)
- Nightingale Point by Luan Goldie (review)
- The Dutch House by Ann Patchett (review)
- Girl by Edna O’Brien
Not planning on reading: The Mirror and the Light by Hilary Mantel