More than a decade after publishing her last novel, award-winning author and screenwriter Susan Minot returns to bookshelves with Thirty Girls (Knopf), a striking tale based in truth infused with the author's own brand of depth and poetic prose.
Although a work of fiction, Thirty Girls is based on real-life events, specifically the abduction of more than a hundred young female students from Aboke, Uganda’s St. Mary’s College (a boarding school for school-aged girls) by the Joseph Kony-led Lord’s Resistance Army in 1996. The girls of Aboke made headlines when one of the school’s nuns, Sister Rachele Fassera (here fictionalized as Sister Giuilia), followed the rebels after the abduction in order to retrieve the majority of her girls from the LRA.
Thirty girls, however, were left behind — the ones Minot attempts to give voice to with her cleverly constructed and emotionally rich novel.
The story is told through two very different narrators: Jane Wood, an American writer who comes to Africa to research the tale of the girls for her own story; and Esther Akello, a former star student who is taken by the LRA when she is just 14 and is struggling to readjust to the world after escaping. The juxtaposition between the two perspectives is jarring. The majority of the book sits with Jane, who struggles to overcome both her own inherent narcissism and her apparently ingrained immaturity in order to tell a compelling story.
Jane, although in Africa specifically to cover the Aboke story, soon finds herself consumed by a romance with a much younger man that robs her of empathy and seemingly prohibits her from feeling emotions expected when diving deep into such a tragic story. In her whirlwind, she scans as an immature woman overtaken by a schoolgirl crush.
The irony, of course, is that Esther is an actual schoolgirl, and she’s emotionally evolved in a way that Jane could not even fathom. As troublesome as Jane is (and as prickly as she may be perceived by Minot’s readership), Minot works hard to make her eventual maturity feel both real and satisfying. Jane, vaguely aware of her own inability to compartmentalize real trauma, thinks to herself at one point, “I will never complain ever again.” She doesn’t exactly stick to that personal promise, but Minot’s dedication to making Jane fully understand what she is experiencing is admirable and ultimately quite rewarding.
The main attraction of Thirty Girls, however, is Minot’s elegant turn of phrase. She excels at using spare wording for the maximum of effectiveness, and much of the action of Thirty Girls feels as if it’s sprung from a poem or stream of consciousness, not real world tragedies. Minot abstains from quotation marks to differentiate between the internal monologue of her main characters and dialogue between others. Paired with constant switching between time, place, and character, it’s a testament to her mighty powers that the complicated elements of Thirty Girls still read as easy to understand.
The author is particularly skilled at conveying the vivid colors of both Africa and everyday life with the minimal words, portraying the beauty of the environment with evocative language:
The river surged by below, the color of café au lait, battering low branches that bounced against the white waves. Above the river a woolly ridge dark as a rain forest rose up against a yellowish sky. It was late afternoon. On the table a wineglass held a coin of red liquid and a dish had the last bits of a tart crust.
The other rewards of Thirty Girls aren’t exactly rapid in their execution, but pay off. Minot doesn’t push Jane and Esther together quickly, instead holding off on their one-time meeting until late in the book — so late, in fact, that it often seems as if the pair will never cross paths — which infuses the story with some hard-won and richly felt emotion.
After keeping Jane and Esther apart for so long, Minot finally brings them together, entwining the pair so deeply that the book’s concluding chapters no longer focus on just one or the other of its leading ladies, instead seeing them trade off perspectives multiple times on just one page, finally delivering on the promise of Jane’s search for something with true meaning and finding it in Esther.