Posted by: Lisa Hill | October 19, 2019

Girl, by Edna O’Brien

We had heard of them and their brute ways, but until you know something you do not know it. (Girl, by Edna O’Brien, p.85)

It was the kidnapping of the schoolgirls by the Nigerian Jihadist group Boko Haram that first made me disdain #Hashtag campaigns as useless.

The #BringBackOurGirls campaign flourished worldwide, with no less a celebrity than Michelle Obama brandishing her placard — yet it seems to have achieved nothing much at all except that the Nigerian government has been shamed into paying ransoms, thus enriching the terrorists.  Of the 276 girls taken, 112 are still missing and a further 100 were kidnapped and mostly ransomed in 2018.  No one has been held to account for these and other atrocities.  Advocacy for the remaining missing girls has collapsed, and the world has moved on.

Predictably, Edna O’Brien’s new novel Girl, which tells the story of one of these kidnapped girls, has been criticised.  It would be better, so it goes, if the story were told by the victim.  Or a Nigerian.  Or a younger writer.  Or somebody who’s not white.  None of these critics seem to have thought about how those alternatives might happen, or what obstacles might stand in their way.  We know from the Holocaust that it can take a lifetime to be able to articulate the horrors of brutality and oppression; many survivors are only now, in their very old age, starting to tell the stories of their childhoods under the Nazis. Do these critics seriously think that these girls from Chibok, still only in their twenties, many with babies born from repeated rape, and struggling with PTSD and the shame of being ostracised by their own people, are going to write their stories for the public?  And given the corruption and human rights abuses by the Nigerian security services, (see Wikipedia) do they really think that the fledgling Nigerian publishing industry is going to publish anything — no matter who it’s written by — that might revive the criticism of their president’s lack of action and the damage that the Chibok kidnappings did to their country’s reputation?

Of course if the notable Nigerian writers who live in the west chose to write about this issue, it would be published because their names are marketable.  Is there a book about the kidnappings by a Nigerian?  Well, yes.  Helon Habiba (who now lives in the US) wrote a non-fiction account called The Chibok Girls: The Boko Haram Kidnappings and Islamist Militancy in Nigeria in 2016.  That gets criticised too, but it was this comment in a Goodreads review by Tinea that articulates the difference between his reportage and Edna O’Brien’s work of profound empathy:

Habila gets his interview with some Chibok girls, and they repeat the same story they’ve told over and over again to all media. Habila prints it and laments the banality of this story with the same defeatism he laments the banality of bribes at military checkpoints. It seems a disservice to have trekked so far to push these girls to repeat the same story, and then to rewrite it for this book, with no context on their treatment, their wellbeing, the movement to free them, and a throwaway line dismissing the heroism of their escapes– confusing the present dullness from repetition of the story and perhaps ongoing or new traumas with banality in their heroic moments, erasing their agency and daring instead of seizing and centring it.

In contrast to Habila’s book, Irish author Edna O’Brien doesn’t write about the inept government response, the indifference of the media, or the colonialism that’s given rise to the conflicts in Africa. She writes about a girl. And this is how she begins:

I was a girl once, but not any more.  I smell.  Blood dried and crusted all over me, and my wrapper in shreds.  My insides, a morass.  Hurtled through this forest that I saw, that first awful night, when I and my friends were snatched from the school.

The sudden pah-pah of gunshot in our dormitory and men, their faces covered, eyes glaring, saying they are the military come to protect us, as there is an insurrection in the town.  We are afraid, but we believe them.  Girls staggered out of bed and others came in from the veranda, where they had been sleeping because it was a warm, clammy night.

The moment we heard Allahu Akbar, Allahu Akbar,  we knew.  They had stolen our soldiers’ uniforms to get past security.  They pelted questions at us – Where is the boys’ school, Where is the cement kept, Where are the storage rooms. When we told them we did not know, they went crazy.  Then, some others ran in to say they could not find any spare parts or petrol in the sheds, which led to argument.

They could not go empty-handed or their commander would be furious.  Then, amid the clamour, one of them with a grin said, ‘Girls will do’ … (p.1)

Girl gives voice to the young women O’Brien met and listened to, in an unflinching portrayal of their experience yet which also depicts their concern for one another, their courage, their endurance and their capacity to seize opportunity when it arises.

Maryam narrates the story so that we feel it when she is bundled into a truck, when her friend Rebekah seizes the opportunity to jump out when there is a gap in the forest, and when it dawns on her what is about to happen.  We feel it when this girl, little more than a child herself, gives birth and has to struggle with conflicting feelings about a baby born under these circumstances.  We feel it too, when home at last in her village, her baby is taken away from her because it shames her family.  We see, and hear, and feel some very terrible things, because Edna O’Brien has told the story of these girls with all the power of her mighty pen.

As the book explains in the Acknowledgements, O’Brien—in her 80s—made two trips to Nigeria in 2016 and 2017 to talk not just with survivors who escaped, but also the people and organisations helping these young women.   You can read more about her research, and her response to the criticism that she’s not ‘eligible’ to write this story in this article at The Guardian. 

Image credit: Michelle Obama, by Michelle Obama, Office of the First Lady – First Lady of the United States Twitter account, (confirmed account), Public Domain,

Author: Edna O’Brien
Title: Girl
Publisher: Faber and Faber, 2019. 230 pages
ISBN: 9780571341177
Source: Review copy courtesy of Faber and Faber via Allen & Unwin

Available from Fishpond: Girl


  1. I don’t criticise O’Brien for writing this story, because someone had to and she’s given them a voice. I just don’t think I could bear to read it…. :((


    • Parts of it are hard to read, and yet what I really like about it is the way the girl transcends victimhood. This, I think, is where O’Brien excels: after all, we all ‘know what happened’, but this book shows us what we didn’t know about the girls as individuals.

      Liked by 3 people

      • I too couldn’t bear it, but may thanks to this review try again one day


        • Hello, and thank you for your comment. Some reading is just really tough to do…

          Liked by 1 person

  2. I agree with Karen: good for E O’B for writing this, but don’t think I can bear to read it – I still have her last one, about the Balkan horrors, unread on my shelves


    • The Little Red Chairs isn’t about the Balkan horrors. Most of it takes place in an Irish village, but it kind of explodes to take in the horrific treatment of women in many parts of the world. There are some absolutely gruelling bits, but I’m very glad I read it. It sounds as if Girl is a further step along the same path. Edna O’Brien is a hero.


      • It’s made me interested in reading some of her other books. You recommend The Little Red Chairs?


        • Yes,definitely. There’s a point where it’s as if she throws the whole idea of a conventional novel out the window and demands that the reader look at the world we are living in

          Liked by 2 people

  3. Hi Lisa, it is a book I will read, but of course with one with great sadness. It a book that should be read even if O’Brien is not Nigerian or one of the girls. This inhumane atrocity should never be forgotten, and O’Brien should be very proud that she is helping to keep it in everyone’s mind.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Well, that’s what I think…
      One of the reviews at GR goes on and on about this, and says O’Brien should have offered the £15,000 she spent on bribes in Nigeria to Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie to write it for her. I find this idea bizarre. CNA would obviously know about the Chibok girls and if she wanted to write about them she would. But she hasn’t. She has written bestsellers about feminism instead. Good luck to her, I think writers should follow their own path. But also, I wouldn’t be surprised if this suggestion offended CNA, (a) because it implies that she needs to be paid to care about these girls and their story and (b) because it’s both racist and sexist to say, oh, you’re a Nigerian woman so you should be writing about this event, as if somehow her gender and her nationality typecasts her and automatically qualifies her to have the wisdom, empathy and imagination to write such a book.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. I’m certainly disappointed that O’Brien had to write this because one of the great Nigerian women writers wouldn’t/hadn’t. Some time ago I read and appreciated Don’t Tell Me You’re Afraid, the story of Somali woman Samia Yusuf Omar written by a male Italian journalist – and the fact that the writer was neither a woman nor an African detracts from the telling, but yes, at least it gets the story out there.


    • I hear you Bill, you remember we talked about this ( when I reviewed Hurma, by a Yemeni author. In the wake of the Shriver brouhaha I think we came to a truce when it’s a case of accepting a compromise while we wait for the authentic voice.

      But I find it interesting and yes, disappointing, that it takes an ageing Irish woman to write about the Chibok girls. I hunted around to see if I’d missed something, but I don’t think I have because this article specifically references Boko Haram but doesn’t offer a book about it other than the one by Helon Habila. See:
      BTW I’ve read four of the books by Nigerian women in the Book Riot list, five if you count Achebe. So I think I’m keeping up!


      • Lost my comment! Starting again: I like Nigerian writing and I’ve reviewed 3 I think and have just given another one to Milly which I’ll read/review eventually.

        Liked by 1 person

  5. Wow, Lisa. I hadn’t heard about this book – but of course I agree with your take. I’m not hard-line about who can write what stories. I just believe that care needs to be taken. It sounds like O’Brien has taken the proper and necessary care in order to tell a story that should be told. It’s an horrendous, unbelievable situation – and yet it’s happened, and in our time.


    • Thanks, Sue.
      I kept thinking as I read it, the nearest thing I can compare it to is the Faraday School kidnapping in Gippsland in 1972, and the sense of shock that children just doing what kids do at school could suddenly be plunged into such terror.
      And the contrast between the effort to rescue the children here, with the minister for education doing the ransom in person, and the indifference of the Nigerian response is just awful.
      I’d be willing to bet, too, that no one who was around in 1972 has forgotten those children or their brave teacher Mary Gibbs.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. I will read this.


    • I look forward to your review:)


  7. This is the first (at least that I recall) that I’ve read of/about this novel. I’ve been an admirer of O’Brien’s for several years now but I hadn’t registered the theme of this work. Good on her for doing the work to create an authentic voice that moved you deeply. I hope the work continues to attract and galvanize more readers.


    • It would be wonderful if the book led to renewed diplomatic pressure that shamed Nigeria into action…


  8. […] for that: Edna O’Brien’s The Little Red Chairs which somebody recommended after I read Girl; and also Witi Ihimaera’s The Matriarch which I needed to complete his trilogy and plan to […]


  9. […] Girl, by Edna O’Brien […]


  10. […] Girl, by Edna O’Brien […]


  11. […] (Lisa Hill has reviewed it here) […]


  12. […] Lisa Hill also liked this book. […]


  13. […] it takes an outsider to tell a story.  Irish writer Edna O’Brien’s novel Girl (see my review) is the story of the Boko Haram girls, and nobody in Nigeria, including its most successful and […]


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