Having recently written about Roald Dahl’s Matilda (the Literary Encyclopedia), I’ve become more aware of stories about girls. By ‘girls’, I mean under the age of eighteen. Paula Hawkins’s The Girl on the Train was not about a girl – it was about a young woman.
So many stories about girlhood depict heroines battling against adversaries and situations that often stem from simply not being a boy. Matilda is a gifted child who can read and do maths well beyond her years. Yet, she has to fight the negative gender stereotypes promoted by both of her parents, who blatantly favour Matilda’s little dimwitted brother. When Matilda displays a stronger ability in maths than her father, he calls his daughter a stupid liar. Her mother tries to dissuade her from being smart as it would make it harder for her to get a husband. These characters, referred to by one scholar as ‘.the most thoroughly unpleasant personalities in children’s fiction’ are seen by some as exaggerations for the amusement of children. But I would argue they are not too far off the mark in western societies even today and in some parts of the world, this hyper-sexism is spot on. What makes this a good story about girlhood is that Matilda triumphs using her brain and her telekinetic powers which come from her extraordinary powers of concentration – her brain again.
While working on this Matilda article, my pleasure read for part of that time was Edna O’Brien’s brillant novel Girl, based on the kidnapping of 276 girls by Boko Haram in Nigeria in 2014. Given the subject matter, it might not sound like a ‘pleasure read’ and I had hesitated to read it at all because I thought it might be too distressing. We all knew at the time that these girls were abducted in order to be raped or forced to be soldier’s brides – another form of rape. While, yes, the rapes occur, they happen early in the story and are described from one girl’s perspective with a focus on the emotional experience of confusion and disgust. Once the girl, Maryam, is married off and gives birth – she is barely pubescent – she is able to escape. The story becomes one of survival in terrifying circumstances. Upon Maryam’s return to her family the story shifts to one of coping with trauma and rising above the superstitions and condemnation of her family and community. In its own, strange way, O’Brien’s retelling of this horrible crime against humanity is life-affirming.
I realise that this blog, thankfully not a book review article, makes an unlikely comparison between a children’s book known for its dark humour and a contemporary adult novel replete with uncomfortable naturalism.Both Dahl and O’Brien see the innate oppression in the lives of girls.