It was a major international news story at the time, yet another tale of horror from Africa when 139 girls were abducted from St Mary's College in Uganda, in 1996, by the Lord's Resistance Army forces of Joseph Kony. A nun, Sr Rachele Fassera, went into the bush after them and rescued all but 30 of the girls. Eventually 26 escaped; four died in captivity. The story drifted from the news pages, yet the violence continues. Children are still being coerced into armies and ordered, under threat of death, to perpetrate vicious crimes. Corruption is presented as a means of survival.
Thirty Girls is an important book. It will raise consciousness and should shame international governments into taking action. That said, the question needs to be asked as to whether it is good. The answer is strangely complicated. The American writer Susan Minot, famous since the publication of her first book, Monkeys (1987), which established a reputation that was further consolidated by Evening (1998), has been silent since Rapture (2002). She has now written a most unlikely novel that is almost as satisfying for its flaws as it is for its achievement.
Interestingly, considering the shocking power and the visceral recollections of one of the haunted survivors, Esther – still only a child yet a victim of repeated rape who declares, "Sometimes your spirit is so heavy you say to it, I cannot carry you around" – Thirty Girls is a story, not a polemic. This is partly due to Minot's dividing the narrative between Esther's first-person account and the more mundane yet equally believable story of an American journalist, named Jane Wood, who arrives to report on the events. She quickly becomes involved with a group of expats who have adapted to life in Africa.
At times the novel reads as early Paul Theroux; there are also echoes of Russell Banks, particularly his very fine novel The Darling (2004), which was set in Liberia. Most impressive of all, and perhaps unexpected from Minot, who has to date concentrated on character and sexual longing, she sustains a vivid sense of Africa in all its prevailing ambivalence.
Minot’s outsiders adrift bring expertise and ego with them. None of the characters is sympathetic, although Jane, for all her self-absorption, is clearly vulnerable. She is old enough to be aware of her age, and her underlying personal desperation is well drawn by Minot, as ever insightful about relationships and sexual undercurrents.
Jane’s life is at a crossroads, and work helps her survive. She still carries a photograph of her ex-husband, a drug addict. He died from an overdose, as she explains to Harry, a much younger white Kenyan who shows interest in her. Their romance begins to preoccupy her. She seems to forget her assignment, and Minot risks presenting Jane as totally selfish and infatuated in what is a war zone.
Jane is no Joan of Arc, yet her inertia almost highlights the contrast between outsiders and victims, detached observers for whom war is a business, something to be written about and photographed. The traumatised survivors almost appear to exist only to help provide copy for the journalists, should they feel like interrupting their socialising to consider the political realities.
It is a cinematic book. Minot believes in the visual; the reader sees this story as much as reads it. Everything is brilliantly described: people, places, sensations. Her writing, for all its sensual responses, is emphatically cerebral.
The two main stories are stylistically very different. Esther, not yet 16 and tormented by having taken part, under threat of death from her captors, in the brutal killing of one of her school friends, is a lost soul. “Your life is your own one moment then suddenly it changes and belongs to someone else.” The writing in the Esther sequences soars with a lyric intent that goes far beyond mere intensity. She is the life of the book: “I sit among the girls in the shade of a tree not so far above my head. It is peaceful with their voices in the air, talking quietly. . . My mind is uneasy. Since being away, I am used to my thoughts being disrupted. They have cracks in them. I remember in a soft way, as in the distance, how it was to be whole.”
Midway through the novel Esther recalls Kony’s crazed claim that he is only following the will of God. She says that he had told the girls that they were not captives, only sinners. It is true that this young girl’s eloquence is moving and profound and possibly too unusually sophisticated to be true. Its grandeur is glorious if completely artificial. Esther expresses herself in a poetic prose: “Life is there before me but not close enough for my hand to reach it. My heart is suffocating.”
Yet it is through her that Minot reveals the depth of research underpinning the book as well as its philosophical depth: “Each of us will all die one day. Some of us before others. The first time you meet death, it is a surprise. Up to that moment you have not believed it is possible. You know it is there, but do not know it is close-up until it takes away forever someone you love.”
Jane’s experiences are handled in a language that is plainer, if generous in detail. Jane and Harry have contrasting approaches to life. She has a series of emotional disasters while he has been able to move from woman to woman. It is predictable, yet Minot is so good on yearning that it almost works.
Admirers of Minot will be impressed if not fully convinced. Her gift has always been her understatement. This novel is perhaps too wordy, surprisingly top-heavy and, at times, overexplained. It is a big book, serious and worthy. Minot never plays for humorous effect, and the dialogue rarely exceeds the functional.
Thirty Girls could well be seen as a story of two lost souls, the difference being that whereas young Esther had hers torn from her, Jane finds not only a soul but also a heart. This is a brave book; overly long, far from perfect and at times burdened by too many characters with voices that all sound the same, yet Esther is a study in moral force.
Minot, famed chronicler of family – her own family, for which she has angered her siblings – has moved far beyond her established territory with an ambitious novel that takes on an ongoing crime. She is denouncing not only the evil abuse of women and children as it continues in the world today but also complacency on all levels and looking at what it means to be human.
Somehow she has made imperfection compellingly interesting in a contentious, daring, infuriating and humane odyssey that adds up to her most committed book to date.
Eileen Battersby is Literary Correspondent.