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Joyce Carol Oates, reviewing it in the Times, said, “Here, in addition to O’Brien’s celebrated gifts of lyricism and mimetic precision, is a new, unsettling fabulist vision that suggests Kafka more than Joyce.” O’Brien, recalling the assault scene, told me, “I am proud of it.” She went on, “At that time, it was the most extreme thing I had written.” At the start of this summer, in Chelsea, O’Brien had nearly finished work on “Girl,” and was worrying about her acknowledgments page.

At home, she noted, “there’s a machine upstairs, an Apple, that was given to me by Ian McKellen when I was eighty.

O’Brien told me that her research had included rereading “Heart of Darkness,” as well as J. M. Coetzee’s “Waiting for the Barbarians.” Nonfiction works about Boko Haram, she said, were largely unhelpful.

“They didn’t inspire me, in the way I needed to be inspired,” she said. Her first ambition was to “meet girls who will tell me their story,” she recalled.

But the girls she met were “very shy, and also reluctant to talk.” Committed to producing a work of fiction that had documentary authority, she made contact with social workers, doctors, and journalists. The narrator of the novel, Maryam, escapes Boko Haram along with another adolescent girl, Buki; their sometimes fractious comradeship evokes that of Caithleen and Baba, in “The Country Girls.” When Buki reveals that, in preparation for flight, she has been stealing food from their captors, Maryam notes, “To anyone observing us from above we would have seemed lost and insignificant, but to ourselves we were champions.” She lives in a world that’s testing her, daring her to survive.” Others may recognize that O’Brien has shown a form of courage in taking on the story but react uneasily to a character from rural northeastern Nigeria whose world view includes egg cups, perambulators, and bottles of vanilla essence, and whose inner life is conveyed by such expressions as “an ungodly hour” and “jolted hither and thither.”

Obi Anyadike, a Nigerian-born researcher who has studied the conflict, told me that he was struck by material in “Girl” that seemed to have no natural place in a Boko Haram story: horses being used to crush people to death in pits, fighters pumping themselves up with amplified music.

“You’d be listening to Hausa poetry extolling the wonders of Islam.” In “Girl,” Boko Haram soldiers set up a table in the middle of a compound, then rape one girl after another, to “baying and cheering.” Many Boko Haram abductees, Anyadike noted, have been raped, typically in the context of coerced “marriages,” but this scene struck him as wayward. “I think it’s incredibly disturbing that she went on this flight of fantasy,” Anyadike said.

Asked about this, O’Brien told me that she “would not be so reckless as to insert untrue, or lurid, situations,” adding, “I didn’t have to.” She pointed me to a number of magazine and newspaper reports about Boko Haram abuses. I do not subscribe to that devious form of censorship.” Rafferty, in The Atlantic, ratified this sentiment.

“It would be a shame if her attempt to assume the voice of an African girl were to be seen only, or even primarily, as an act of cultural appropriation,” he wrote. “O’Brien’s understanding of, and sympathy for, girls in trouble transcends culture.”

In 1957, T. S. Eliot bought an apartment in Kensington, and lived there with his second wife, Valerie, until he died, in 1965. Once inside, O’Brien, taking off her coat, described that exchange to Clare Reihill, the foundation’s director.

“For two full minutes, he assured us we were in the wrong place!” O’Brien said. Reihill showed O’Brien the bedroom in which both Eliots died, forty-seven years apart.

A woman and her partner put on their jackets and leave her parents' house.
A woman and her partner put on their jackets and leave her parents' house.
A man fishing on a small boat catches a boot. A commercial fishing boat next to him catches a giant boot.
A man fishing on a small boat catches a boot. A commercial fishing boat next to him catches a giant boot.

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