In a feat of empathy and imagination, the Irish writer O'Brien portrays one girl’s torments after she is taken by jihadis in Nigeria.
Opening with a nighttime raid that recalls Boko Haram’s 2014 abduction of schoolgirls in Chibok, Nigeria, O’Brien (The Little Red Chairs, 2015, etc.) lets one victim, named Maryam, tell her story. In a jungle camp, their captors bombard the girls with prayers, edicts, and hatred. The militants rape them repeatedly. In the Blue House, there is “a long corridor with cubicles leading off it and in each one an iron bed and a naked bulb dangling down.” The prettiest girls are sold to wealthy men in Arabia. Others are given as brides to men who excel in battle. Such is Maryam’s lot, and when she has a baby, it’s suddenly clear how long her ordeal has been. Then, only 60 pages in, she escapes. But O’Brien withholds hope, opening her heroine’s world to new perils and despair. Maryam endures starvation and a friend’s death on a jungle trek with her baby that fuels tension as recapture seems inevitable. She even abandons her Babby, but some women from a herding community find and return her. They share their village and rich culture with Maryam. There she realizes her presence as a jihadi’s wife is a threat to her hosts. Reunited with her mother and feted by the government, Maryam learns of the stigma attached to a jihadi wife’s child and she is separated from Babby. Throughout the post-escape narrative, O’Brien uses every opportunity to insert songs, tales, myths, and rituals of the country, deeply enriching a story and a character that were already memorable. She also brings to the fore the complex relations and supportive roles of women in a novel largely blighted by males. Long associated with Ireland, O’Brien might spark questions of cultural appropriation with this excursion to Africa. But she has always dealt with women’s oppression as her thematic palette has expanded over the years, with her previous novel combining Balkan war crimes and the global refugee crisis.
A heartbreaking tale and a singular achievement.