O’Brien’s latest novel, although not explicitly named in the book, is based on the abduction of 276 school girls by Boko Haram in Nigeria in 2014. It opens with a description of the night they were taken, one girl jumping out of the truck into the unknown to escape the horrors ahead. What follows is a harrowing account of gang rape, stoning, and the daily cruelties inflicted. It is hard reading yet unputdownable. The narrative isn’t linear as our narrator, Maryam, attempts to find freedom while experiencing repeated flashbacks and ostracisation because of what happened to her.
We are forced to witness great suffering just as the other girls are made to watch their peers undergo abuse, knowing they will soon be suffering similar. Later, we are told that their abusers sometimes film their attacks, laughing and gloating, witnessing for pleasure instead of fear. They have all the power and take any opportunity to humiliate the girls. The presence of smart phones also offers a stark reminder that this wasn’t centuries ago but continues today.
There is no comfort for the girls. Maryam describes her experience of childbirth, of the uncaring women acting as midwives who leave as soon as the placenta has been removed and who made her clean the room of the mess of labour. This is one example of many that highlight how they are mistreated and made vulnerable with no reprieve or chance of human sympathy.
The tone is dispassionate, suggesting a numbing experience often brought on by trauma, and she tells us that when telling her story to officials she leaves out details of the repeated sexual assaults. In a celebration of her return she is told many times not to mention anything too gruesome, people do not really want to know the truth. Indeed, she finds that her relationship with her mother has become fraught as they both try to process what has happened. She is rejected and seen as suspicious by many, O’Brien carefully showing that it doesn’t end with the celebratory footage of their return - the consequences of their captors’ actions will follow them through life.
O’Brien has come under some criticism for writing a book from the point of view of a character whose life is so different from her own, but it is done sensitively, with careful research. She comments in interviews that she felt compelled to write it, to tell the stories and bring the cause to the forefront of people’s attention. An unflinching portrayal that demands your attention.
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