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The Irish novelist on her searing new novel, scandal, regrets, religion and… football
In May 2017, I watched Edna OBrien read from a work-in-progress before a predominantly young audience at a publishing event in London. As the veteran Irish novelist arranged herself at a small table lit by a single lamp, I wondered how many of those present were aware of her literary lineage or even knew who she was. She waited for silence to settle before speaking quietly at first, but with an intensity of purpose that belied her advancing years. I was a girl once, she began, but not any more.
I can still recall the rapt silence that attended her every word and hung in the air for a long moment after her reading ended. Then came the applause, heartfelt and sustained. It was an exercise in almost primal storytelling: stark, dramatic and pitch-perfect in its execution. A lesson from a master.
OBriens new novel, Girl, opens with that same haunting sentence, matter of fact and regretful. What follows is a contemporary story as raw and transfixing as the most visceral Greek tragedy, a story of abduction, rape and imprisonment recounted in often unflinching detail by Maryam, the young Nigerian girl of the title. It is, as the American novelist Richard Ford attests, a work of profound empathy and grace, its narrative leavened by deftly wrought moments of maternal intimacy that possess a quiet but almost luminous intensity.
OBrien is 88. Girl is her 19th novel and she has intimated that it may be her last. It may yet prove to be her most powerful.
The idea for the novel came from a newspaper report about a girl who was found wandering in Sambisa Forest in Nigeria. Every day the newspapers are full of novels waiting to be written, but this small item resonated in my inner mind, she recalls. The girl had escaped her captors, but she had lost her mind and she was carrying a baby. I could not have written this novel if the violence and injustice done to this young woman and many others hadnt been moulded on to my self and my soul.
In 2016 and 2017, OBrien made two trips to Nigeria, where she met several young women who had escaped captivity, having been among the 276 schoolgirls kidnapped by Boko Haram jihadists in the Nigerian town of Chibok in April 2014. You hear these terrible stories and you absorb them, she says. They haunt me still. I wake sometimes thinking of the girls and the horrors they experienced.
Girl is unlike any of the novels that preceded it in OBriens 60-year career, the style spare and restrained, the terrain unfamiliar, a world away from the landscape and discontents of her native Ireland. It was new territory for me, emotionally, geographically, culturally, she says. I had to discard the things that have fortified my writing for 60 years landscape, lyricism, love. I had to put all those things aside and just dive in as if this was the first book I had ever written.