On 14 April 2014, militants from the terrorist group Boko Haram broke into a school in the town of Chibok, north-eastern Nigeria, and abducted 276 girls. Over the subsequent months and years, some dozens managed to escape, were rescued or released by negotiation; more than a hundred remain missing, their names and stories long since vanished from the headlines. At least two million people have been displaced by the faction, and tens of thousands killed or wounded. Facts and figures can hardly convey the human horror of the atrocity: in her astonishing new novel, O’Brien tests fiction’s capacity to probe, through language, empathy and imagination, what reportage cannot.
In other hands, using fiction to tell the story of other people’s unimaginable pain would be exploitative. But O’Brien is one of the few writers who can make the case for fiction’s power in such circumstances. Since her 1960 debut, The Country Girls, she has explored characters searching for awakening and escape, in a world where women “do not have the power to change things”. Her last novel, 2015’s The Little Red Chairs, took as its subject a Serbian war criminal: O’Brien’s interest in evil and injustice is matched by her ability to capture humanity at its basest and at its most resilient.
In recent years, O’Brien, who is 88, has spent months in Nigeria, speaking to some of these girls and their families. Girl opens with “that first awful night”, when armed soldiers – “the Jihadis” – storm a girls’ dormitory and pile teenagers haphazardly on to trucks, before hurtling deep into the forest. Desperate and confused, the girls “talk in whispers, and try to give each other courage”; when one girl jumps – either to instant safety or to sudden death – their makeshift community faces its first rupture.
The girls are thrust together, yet are constantly reminded that they remain desperately alone: they are sent to separate camps, while some are taken aside to be sold as brides to rich men. The rest are dressed in a bland uniform and lined up, looking “identical and pitiable”, for photographs, to be sent home in the hope of extorting ransom money. Men walk past, “appraising our juiciness”. The girls’ value, it is clear, is as objects and vessels.
The violence in the camp is charted in intense yet not gratuitous detail. The forest is a former game reserve, but now the girls are the prey, constantly compared to animals. O’Brien’s narrator, Maryam, is set to work in the cookhouse, serving meals to the entire army. The girls undergo regular rape, corralled “like cattle” to the huts where soldiers stop on their way to fight. Afterwards, they pray for their periods, eating unfamiliar roots to try to prevent pregnancy. Maryam is “chosen” as a wife for a soldier to reward his prowess in battle. As she prepares to give birth to their child, men crowd around hoping for a boy; the child is a girl, and Maryam – no longer a girl herself, but a mother – is ignored once again.
O’Brien’s descriptions of landscape are particularly rich – “a vast violet expanse of sky, a land of beauty that has become a place of woe”. But she is at her most compelling when she voices Maryam’s interiority. In her diary, Maryam records her nightmares in stark, spare language. “From dream to waking and back again,” she writes, “I cannot tell the difference.” Horrors spill into her dreams: she imagines performing actions she could never have fathomed before, slashing at men with her cooking knife, “boiling my captors, in big black pots”. But her dreams offer only brief glimpses of empowerment: her subconscious also torments her with visions of further violence, the soldiers mutated into creatures that are “half man, half beast”.
Eventually, she ends up praying to God to “please give me no more dreams. Make me blank. Empty me of all that was.” Stripped of her clothes, her name, her family and her language, Maryam is no longer recognisable to herself: “I am unable to pray in my old tongue, as they bombarded us with their prayers, their edicts, their ideology, their hatred, their Godliness.”
The novel has three loose stages: the second begins when Maryam and her friend Buki hear helicopters overhead and seize the opportunity to make their escape. They rush “through smoke and carnage”, leaping over dead bodies and landmines until they collapse under a canopy of trees, alone within “the vastness of the forest”. Once on the other side, Maryam and her child, Babby, find brief respite among kind, motherly women in a peaceful settlement. But this happiness proves only temporary when local villagers hear that the community is hiding “a militant’s wife and child”. Later, at a military post, she is mistaken for a suicide bomber and made to strip for men once again; on closer inspection, the guard can tell she is one of the missing schoolgirls by “the trauma in the sockets of the eyes and the hunted look”. When Maryam does at last return home, it is to the realisation that her status as outcast cannot now be revoked.
In Maryam, O’Brien has created a character both archetypal and individual: narrator of her own story and repository of others’. Maryam’s voice is permeated by those of many other wanderers who cross her path and tell her their tales. Some of these are plainly recorded memories of life before displacement, or reports, like witness statements, of their own capture and torment. Others are more fabular, interspersed with fragments of song, myth and legend: we hear of a blind woman convinced she will recognise her husband’s footsteps when he returns, an itinerant soup-seller who overcame her fear of death by spending nights in a mass grave, and a child who found a phone number on a scrap of paper in her executed father’s pocket, and set out to find its owner. The cumulative power is immense.
Maryam’s own narrative incorporates hints of fairy tale, of the Bible and of Greek tragedy, mingling distinct religious and cultural traditions with jarring reminders of the contemporary, to form a diction all its own. The book’s two epigraphs come from Euripides’s play The Trojan Women, an indictment of the devastation war wreaks on those left at home, and a statement from the Nigerian government, claiming it has created helicopters that can fire 4,000 rounds per minute – “a game changer”. War, horrifyingly, has become more efficient. But, as O’Brien shows, its effects, psychological and physical, are as messy, painful and inhuman as ever.
Francesca Wade’s “Square Haunting: Five Women, Freedom and London Between the Wars” is published in 2020 by Faber & Faber
Faber & Faber, 240pp, £16.99
This article appears in the 11 Sep 2019 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron’s legacy of chaos