Edna O'Brien's latest book Girl is a retelling of the kidnapping of more than 200 Nigerian schoolgirls by Boko Haram

Prolific author Edna O'Brien made her name with The Country Girls. Published in 1960, the novel both scandalised her native Ireland and was celebrated there.

Since then, she had published almost 20 novels, and several collections of short stories.

Her new novel, Girl, is a retelling of the kidnap of more than 200 Nigerian schoolgirls by the militant Islamic group Boko Haram.

What, I wondered, was O'Brien doing so far from the Emerald Isle?

By the end of the scarifying first chapter, any doubts had dissolved. This is a sad, hopeful, particular book about one victim of one brutal conflict. It is also about the age-old theme of the violence done to women in all wars.

There is a distressing inevitability to the treatment of the narrator Maryam, once the flimsy shelter of her boarding school is broached, and she and her classmates are trucked away in the middle of the night by the militants.

In the Boko Haram bush camp where the girls are taken, Maryam quickly becomes a domestic slave, is repeatedly raped, is married off and gives birth to a baby girl. The rural Nigeria of Girl is a lawless place. Maryam's unhinged and well-armed captors are only occasionally checked by better armed opponents.

Maryam, however, escapes the bush camp. After an arduous journey across wild terrains, she and her daughter Babby make it to a Nigerian army post.

Free of one set of shackles, she then struggles against the many attempts of family and community to restrain her with stigma and shame.

After being briefly feted in the capital, she returns home to a grief-stricken mother, a decimated family and a fearful village, where she is shunned.

In a cruel twist of fate, Babby is taken from her by a rich relative. But she manages to find and recapture her daughter and only then does her true liberation begin.

O'Brien was bullied and pilloried for The Country Girls, a novel about two female friends thumbing their noses at powerful social mores of the day. In Girl, she has returned to similar, though much more dramatic ground.

It is fascinating to read about the two research trips O'Brien made to Nigeria for this novel, conducted when she was well in her 80s. In an interview, she also defended her right as an outsider to tell this story. The only criteria, she said, is in the gravity of the telling.

By her own measure, she has excelled in this exceptional work of audacious imagination and heart.

  • Christine Kearney is a Canberra based writer.
This story A sad and hopeful book about brutal conflict first appeared on The Canberra Times.