Top Ten contributor Susan Minot travels vast distances – whether measured by miles, experience or sensibility – for her first novel in more than a decade, Thirty Girls.
As Marie Arana writes in the Washington Post, “Minot is known for her spare, atmospheric stories in which women struggle to understand men, and complicated pasts emerge slowly, haltingly, through cryptic dialogue and fractured scenes, until the intensity becomes so fierce that final scenes virtually explode. Her novel Monkeys chronicled a wealthy New England family through alcoholism to swift, unexpected tragedy. Folly told of lovers who went separate ways until fate flung them together again. Evening, Minot’s most accomplished work, was a delirium of love and loss in which a dying, elderly woman in Boston remembers her life’s most passionate interlude. “Rapture” recounted a sexual encounter between former lovers whose minds are curiously detached from the spirited lovemaking at hand.
“Thirty Girls, on the other hand, is a categorical departure for Minot: It takes place in war-torn Africa. Malevolent forces, random and furious — far from the petty savageries of urbane New England — are what drive the story here.”
Set during one of the darkest chapters of Uganda’s pitch black history, it opens with a 1996 raid on a convent school by Joseph Kony’s Lord’s Resistance Army. One hundred and fifty girls were initially trapped inside by Kony and his army of child soldiers. Soon all but thirty were released.
The novel focuses on the experiences of two characters: Esther, a captured school girl who recounts Kony’s brutality and an American journalist, Jane, who has come to Africa to escape her failed marriage and write about child soldiers. Fiammetta Rocco observes in the New York Times Book Review:
“Minot tells her two stories in alternating chapters. As Jane takes a young lover she learns more about herself. (Minot, as always, is particularly good on the topology of desire.) Jane discovers that she can be spoiled and clingy but also that leaping into the unknown can sometimes set a person free. But it’s the story of what happened to those 30 abducted girls that shows Minot’s gifts as a writer.
“Jane meets one of them, Esther Akello, at a rehabilitation center in Uganda. “Your life is your own one moment,” Esther reflects, “then suddenly it changes and belongs to someone else.” In simple, persuasive phrases, she recounts how this happened. Esther had always liked school. Now she is nearly 16 and uncertain whether she can ever go back. … The rebels beat and rape the schoolgirls, but it’s the violence they make them commit against one another that may have the gravest effect. Esther and some of her friends are told to gather up sticks. “You,” a soldier says. “You kill that girl.” She is on the ground, “curled on her side holding herself as if sleeping. Her eyes are squeezed tight and her mouth is bleeding.” No one moves. “If you do not do this,” the soldier says, “instead we will kill you. . . . All of you.” Esther recalls what happens next: “Everyone is hitting now. My stick comes down and the girl no longer jumps. Maybe she does not feel it anymore. . . . After that day I am a new person. I am no longer a person who has never killed. . . . At the time I thought, ‘This is the worst thing that would ever happen.’ Later I stopped deciding what the worst things could be.”
“What happens to the psyche when innocent people are made to kill? Can they ever recover? The novel’s dramatic ending shows that brutality can happen to anyone. In “Thirty Girls,” Susan Minot takes huge questions and examines them with both a delicate touch and a clear eyed, unyielding scrutiny.
“As Dave Eggers did in What is the What, his 2006 fictionalized account of one of the Lost Boys,” Ellen Kanner writes in the Miami Herald, “Minot wants to use literature to transmute a human horror into something that can be understood and in time healed.”
Susan Minot’s Top Ten List
1. Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy (1877).
2. To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf (1927).
3. Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov (1955).
4. The Sound and the Fury by William Faulkner (1929).
5. The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton (1920).
6. Tender Is the Night by F. Scott Fitzgerald (1934).
7. Mansfield Park by Jane Austen (1814).
8. The stories of Ernest Hemingway (1899–1961).
9. Nine Stories by J. D. Salinger (1953).
10. The stories of Anton Chekhov (1860–1904).