MY DEAREST FRIEND just succumbed to cancer. Death seems very real suddenly and even imminent. It is a shock each time I realize the rest of my life will be spent without her. I was helpless in the face of her illness, and frustrated, but she said it was enough to be with her, to watch and wait with her. What else can we do, but vow to carry that person with us always, to never forget. How can that be enough? Do I have an obligation to make my remaining years count, to not waste my time? These thoughts of death and remembrance and responsibility are tied up together for me in Susan Minot’s luminous and elegiac sixth novel, Thirty Girls.
In an odd coincidence, Susan Minot grew up down the street from my friend. I’ve driven past the Minot house and was told the story of her mother’s death before I read it in Monkeys. In another coincidence — I’m sure because I was thinking of my friend — two nights before I was assigned this review I dreamed of Susan Minot. I’ve never met her, but I was in their childhood town, Manchester-by-the-Sea, with my friend and we were walking past a house and Susan Minot, still in her twenties, was on the porch. She waved to us.
How perfect that I was given this book to read. How glad I was that it was good and sad and lovely. It is a departure for Minot. It is not set in New England, it is not about romance or a woman’s journey — although that’s part of it — Thirty Girls is a story of loss and helplessness and whether bearing witness is enough.
Over the past 25 years, 30,000 Ugandan children have been abducted by the LRA, the Lord’s Resistance Army, led by Joseph Kony. They’ve been tortured, made into human shields and soldiers and sex slaves; the horrors are unbelievable. Thirty Girls is based on the true story of thirty of these children, all girls, abducted from their school. Their story, told from the perspective of one of the girls, Esther, is remarkable. Minot uses short direct sentences without contractions to give Esther a foreign and childlike voice. Her words are both flat — the only way she can speak about these things is from an emotional distance — and completely compelling.
Everyone is hitting now. My stick comes down and the girl no longer jumps. Maybe she does not feel it anymore. One hopes this, and to hope this is a terrible hope ... My gaze looks at what is happening but a small gate in my brain makes a space and I leave through it … The hands holding my stick are no longer mine.
Esther’s story of fear and abuse continues and I couldn’t read it fast enough. But Minot adds a concurrent story of a privileged, blond American woman who comes to Uganda as a first time journalist to write about the “invisible children.” In alternating chapters — told in third person — we meet Jane, the erstwhile reporter. She joins a group of ex-pats, Africa enthusiasts, white and well-off, replete with casual sex and drunken parties and cooks who make food that is ignored. It is a severe contrast to the girls marching with the soldiers, becoming “wives” at age 11 or 12, chewing leaves to stave off hunger. At first, I found Jane and friends, Lana, Don, Pierre, and Harry, obnoxious and dull. Jane was the worst of them, a dilettante, a poseur, a novelist who’d come to Africa to escape her life, not to help anyone else. She has an early interaction with Harry, a paragliding motorcyclist, and we learn a little about Jane’s ex-husband and the life she left in New York. I wanted Minot to have begun Jane’s story at home in the States so we could learn about her “normal” life and her desire to make this trip, and so we could empathize with what she saw and how Africa affected her. Instead, she’s already there and in the beginning she spouts the obvious platitudes, “She felt happy and free. The land was majestic …”
But little by little, as she struggles on the arduous journey to find what’s left of these thirty girls, Jane becomes a real person. Her romance with Harry blossoms and their mutual addictions — Harry’s for flying, Jane’s for flying away — begin to make sense. Although Jane is 16 years older than Harry and not a child, she is as susceptible as Esther to the men in her life, to whatever comes along, she too is a kind of victim in her brutal story.
I became as interested in one story as the other. Would Esther escape? Would the girls survive? How would Jane deal with what she learned? What would she do with her frustration at being helpless? Esther’s and Jane’s stories merge and fold into each other, each gallops toward a surprising conclusion, and at the end I was devastated. It isn’t often a novel brings me to tears, but this one did more than once.
Until I read this book, I thought the “Kony” bumper stickers I saw on hipster cars were pro-Kony. I thought he was some African hero, I didn’t know he was responsible for cruelly ravaging an entire country. Thirty Girls is a good book about an important story, and I wonder if Minot, having witnessed all this death, is thinking the time has come to try to make a difference. Why do we write what we write? What obligation do we have to those who have gone? The romance is strong in Jane’s story, the love affair both painful and beautifully written, but it serves as a signifier of all the loves in our lives, the people, the places, the events that change us and even after separation or death live on.
Thirty Girls is filled with tipus, spirits of the dead. Esther’s tipus are the ghosts of people, some that scare her and don’t forgive her, and some that comfort her. For Jane, and for the reader, they are also the spirits of the past, of spent youth, of all our unrequited desires. Minot assures us that our tipus never leave us. For that, I was very grateful.
Diana Wagman is the author of the novels Bump, Skin Deep, and Spontaneous, numerous stories, essays, reviews, and screenplays, including Delivering Milo, directed by Nick Castle and starring Bridget Fonda and Albert Finney.