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  • Gail Wilson Kenna

The Eejit Returns to Edna O’Brien’s Girl

Updated: Nov 10

When Girl came out in 2019, I did not want to read it. Why? I was afraid that Edna O'Brien had gone for one more novel when the time had come to stop writing. For her 2015, The Little Red Chairs, she received only acclaim. Why not end a long career on that literary summit? Why risk a fall and wander into a foreign country like Nigeria? Then in September, as if my fear had been confirmed, Girl appeared in the Daedalus catalogue. Sadly, Edna had been remaindered, a $26.00 hardcover for $6.00. Further proof, I thought, that the novel was a mistake. Out of sympathy and curiosity, I ordered Girl, then read it quickly before my first O'Brien class.


This past week I read Girl slowly. Call me EEJIT. I was blind and now I see. Edna O'Brien needed to write this novel and make a full circle to 1960 and The Country Girls. I wonder what she thought and felt when she first heard about the Chibok schoolgirls being kidnapped by Boko Haram? Did she sense then that she might in some way return to Cait and Baba? Did the imagery in her mind of those innocent schoolgirls in gray garb, seated together on the ground in some unknown location, prisoners of an extreme perverted patriarchy, create a rotation that returned her to the punitive, patriarchal Ireland of her youth?

I will not recount the story of Girl, only say that O'Brien gives us another mythological journey, which is what she offers in The Little Red Chairs, though that novel has a complicated structure. Girl is a return to Edna's early novel, written in first person, the time frames in present and past tense. This story is told by Maryam, who has won an essay contest in English and has the language to tell her story. In The Country Girls, Edna eliminated Cait's mother. In Girl it is Maryam's father who dies while awaiting her return. He, the one who encouraged his daughter's education, is not Cait's alcoholic, feared father. But for Maryam, "ashamed of her terror," to make an archetypal journey, she needs a female character like Baba, Cait's friend from The Country Girls. In Girl that character is Buki, who makes the journey until Maryam and her "bush" baby are forced to continue alone.

I can only say I would have been a fool not to have read Girl. And I appreciated the four pages at the end, which detail Edna O'Brien's trips to Nigeria and what she experienced in her journey to create this novel. I thought it would be her last. Now, I have the feeling this is not true. Edna turns 90 on December 15th. Does she have another decade of writing in her? This week I will read her earlier Down by the River and have something to say about the novel next week. Although the course has ended, my reading of Edna O'Brien continues.

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