Thursday, February 13, 2014

Thirty Girls by Susan Minot - Book Review

Thirty Girls by Susan Minot (Knopf/Random House, 2014, 320 pages, $26.95) tells the searing story of two women caught up in the horror and pain of the abductions and rape of nearly countless children in Uganda and Sudan by Joseph Kony's Lord's Resistance Army. The novel, based on fact and loosely tied to the stories of real children abducted by Kony's senseless.uprising based on his insane understanding, seeks to explore the realities of the contrasting worlds of white wealth and privilege in Africa against the pain and suffering inflicted upon African children by Kony. Using Jane Wood, an American writer nearing the age of forty who is in search of a story and defines herself by her self-agonizing love life and Esther Aboke, a sixteen year old girl who is abducted by Kony's “soldiers” and forced to walk, seemingly forever, through the wild's of northern Uganda and Sudan while she endures unspeakable torture and degredation, Minot seeks to understand and portray some of the breadth of women's experience. The novel is not for the weak of stomach or faint of heart, but remains a compelling and insightful look into a wartorn countryside where no one is immune to its horrors.

Using shifting points of view, Minot spins out her story of horror and death within the beauty and desolation of the African setting. Her somewhat detached descriptions of the countryside and life in Kenya and Uganda capture its beauty and danger in equal parts, each, perhaps, contributing to the appeal of the other. Esther begins her story after she has escaped the KLR and is being helped to come to terms with her experiences while living at Keryandongo Rehabilitation Center in Uganda. She is deeply scarred by what she has seen and experienced over the previous months, and perhaps years, as she has been forced to participate in the torture and killing of others while submitting to rape and the loss of her child, always living in hunger, fear, and with the everpresent threat of AIDS or violent death herself. Her story emerges from deeply internalized self-hatred as she begins to come to terms with her experience.

Jane Wood has come to Africa, having heard of the well-publicized abduction of 139 children, most of whom are rescued early in the novel through the efforts of Sister Giulia, a nun from the school where the girls were living. She manages to get 100 of them freed by agreeing to leave thirty of them behind. This is the source of the novel's title and the dilemma creating much of the book's tension. Jane early on falls in with a group of aimless, wealthy Kenyans who engage in an empty, seemingly mindless movable party. She falls in love with Harry, a paraglider nearly twenty years her junior, who is both delightful and infuriating in his lack of direction. Much of Jane's experience is filtered through her search for a lasting connection to someone she can love. Several of this group's members agree to accompany Jane on her quest for the story of the Lord's Resistance Army and the abducted girls. This setup, presented in liesurely and often stunning prose, leads to a journey that will bring the two women together while revealing each of their riveting stories.

This novel forces the reader to examine the truth and facts of life's horror on a continent suffering from the remains of colonialism. Esther, in her silence, asks, “How can one ever tell a story so full of shame.” While Jane wonders, while in Harry's arms, “Did one ever get to a place where longing vanished,” as she seeks peace in an impossible relationship. The journey through the bush from Nairobi, Kenya, to Kampala, the capitol of Uganda, permits the reader to experience beauty and desolation, caring and torture, love and loss. They travel to the relocation camp, where the group meets some of the girls and experiences first hand their pain. Along the way, Minot introduces the reader to the world of non-governmental organizations (NGO's) each seeking to alleviate pain, poverty, and disease while funneling money to accomplish this from the developed nations of Europe and America. The novel powerfully leads the reader through the facts of this life to an understanding of the almost unbearable truth of its victims. One of the central burdens of any novel is to illuminate “truth” through imagining facts and bringing them to a reality that reports, position papers, and filmed advertisements to support the NGO's can only hint at. In the beauty of Minot's writing, the truth of human an element of human existance and loss is found.

Susan Minot
Susan Minot is an award-winning novelist and short story writer whose books include Monkeys, Folly, Lust & Other Stories, and Evening, which was adapted into the feature film of the same name starring Meryl Streep. Minot was born in Boston and raised in Manchester-by-the-Sea, Massachusetts, attended Brown University, and received her MFA in creative writing from Columbia University. She currently lives with her daughter in both New York City and an island off the coast of Maine. A fine profile in Elle Magazine says, “Desire and its sometimes obliterating consequences are a productive obsession that snakes through all of her fiction."

ThirtyGirls by Susan Minot (Knopf/Random House, 2014, 320 pages, $26.95) tells the harrowing stories of two women's search for some sort of peace and comfort in the face of chilling loss and pain for each of them. How they discover themselves and give meaning to their own experience forms the core of this demanding and engaging novel. Using poetic descriptive language and placing the beauty of Africa as seen from afar (perhaps through the distance provided by the aerial view of a paraglider) in contrast to the human cost of madness, poverty, and senseless murder, Minot creates a world that punishes as it enlightens. Thirty Girls is not light reading, but draws a reader onward while creating a believable and often horrifying portrait of a changing world. The book was provided to me as an electronic galley by the publisher through Edelweiss. I read it on my Kindle.