24 February 2014

Book Review: Thirty Girls by Susan Minot

I've been a fan of Susan Minot's ever since I first read Evening back in the 1990s. Thus I was already predisposed to like her new book called Thirty Girls before I even picked it up, but by the time I came to the end of it, I thought Minot had accomplished something both subversive and marvelous.

Esther is a young Ugandan girl who has been kidnaped by the brutal nutjobs in the Lord's Resistance Army and forced to witness, participate in, and submit to various atrocities associated with children's conscription armies in sub-Saharan Africa. Jane is an American journalist who has traveled to Kenya with the hopes of writing a piece about children like Esther. Minot uses these dual narratives to great effect, alternating Jane's third person story with Esther's more urgent first person every other chapter. When Jane's and Esther's paths eventually cross, Minot starts playing her sly hand.

We follow Esther from the time she is abducted from her boarding school through her frightful experience with the LRA, all the way through to her escape and recovery in a refugee/rehabilitation camp created for such children. Jane, in turn, we follow from her arrival in Nairobi as she meets various wealthy, white ex-pats who are bored enough to accompany Jane on her trek to Uganda to find out more. There's a very Out of Africa-feel to Jane's narrative, and Minot's descriptions are lush and her style is breezily literary in these sections. Jane is undergoing some existential angst and she falls in romantically with a young man more than 15 years her junior on this group excursion that almost feels like a holiday.

Jane's chapters contrast starkly with Esther's halting and awkward first person narration, which she is ostensibly relating as part of her recovery therapy. These escaped children have endured not only the horrors inflicted on them, but the horrors they were required to inflict on other children in order to survive. Most of the girls are no longer wanted by their families, because as rape victims they are not  considered marriageable, and when the boys play in the field their games quickly escalate into violence.  This is the first way that Minot lures her readers into a false sense of security: though the content of Esther's chapters is clearly weightier than Jane's content, Jane's chapters are so much better written that it was actually difficult to make myself not skim Esther's chapters.

Now consider this: according to the Human Rights Watch, "an estimated 20,000 children have been abducted during the 16-year conflict between the LRA and the Ugandan government." Twenty frickin' thousand children.  Now consider this: in 1997, Minot traveled to Uganda to report on these missing children. It seems to me that whatever she saw there has been percolating in her mind for well over a decade, and I'd say that Thirty Girls is her shining tribute to those stolen children, children whom most of the world has forgotten.

You know how Westerners and/or white people and/or people of privilege are all, like, "Oh, what a tragedy that 20,000 children have been stolen from their homes in Uganda," or "How terrible that those Hutus are systematically slaughtering the Tutsis," or "Oh, [insert your own African tragedy of choice here]," but then they put down their newspapers or turn off their televisions without really being touched by the horror? I feel that Minot is doing a bait & switch with Jane's and Esther's narratives, because though we begin and end with Jane, and even though something bad does happen in Jane's narrative, I think the whole point of the book is to make Esther's tale more memorable and important; that basically despite the bad stuff that happens indirectly to Jane, she's still the privileged and lucky one, and the small existential crises she feels are clearly *nothing* in the eyes of the reader compared to what Esther and the rest of the titular thirty girls must undergo.

It's clear to me that Minot holds up her novel like a mirror -- the reader knows which story is more important in this book and society should watch and learn: it is not acceptable to dismiss news like this in order to be consumed by our First World Problems.

NB: Knopf published Thirty Girls earlier this month.  I read an advance reading copy that was provide to me by the publisher at my request. I confess that I read this book back in December and then gave me ARC away to somebody else to read, and that's why I have no excerpts included in my review. Sorry!


  1. This one sounds excellent! I am a little hesitant in the contrasting chapter style, but would definitely give this one a try. Great review.

    1. It's definitely a sobering read. And the contrasting chapters really did irk me at first until I realized what I thought the author was trying to do.

  2. I think books that make you think or make you act are the best kind. Thanks for bringing this one to our attention.

    1. Thanks for the comment. I've fallen so far behind in my blogging--I wish I were as good about it as YOU are!


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