“How can one tell a story so full of shame? asks Esther in Susan Minot’s new novel.
How indeed? Thirty Girls strives to do justice to one of the most harrowing incidents in recent history, the so-called Lost Boys, Uganda’s 30,000 child soldiers, abducted by rebels and forced to torture and kill.
Best known for her 1986 debut short story collection Monkeys, Minot reminds us there were — and are — many Lost Girls. Hewing closely to a true event in 1996, she opens her novel with a gripping recounting of the rebel raid on St. Mary’s, a convent school in Aboke, Uganda.
The Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), led by Joseph Kony, took 150 of the girls. Through negotiation, most were released shortly after. Thirty were forced to remain. “I am one of the abducted children. Did I tell you my name? I am Esther Akello.”
Esther, who has managed to escape the LRA, is now housed safely at a rehabilitation center. Yet the violence she and the other rebel children have experienced can’t be undone. Safety for them is an elusive concept.
In her first novel in more than a decade, Minot wants to do more than sound a drumbeat of atrocities. As Dave Eggers did in What is the What, his 2006 fictionalized account of one of the Lost Boys, Minot wants to use literature to transmute a human horror into something that can be understood and in time healed.
Enter Jane, a thirtysomething divorced, disaffected American journalist who arrives in Nairobi with vague notions of doing a story on the child soldiers. “I will do something,” she told herself. “I will help.”
Though the differences between Esther and Jane are vast, Minot teases out similarities. Both are unmoored, both afraid to look too far within themselves. “Knowing oneself was like smoke wafting into the air.”
Just as Esther and the LRA guerrillas have cut an aimless, ugly swath through Uganda, Jane becomes part of a loose circle of expat friends and friends of friends, a ragtag bunch, their goals and allegiances uncertain. After some days and nights of partying, they all pile into a truck and take Jane to Uganda. It’s a road trip. It’s a lark. Driving the truck is Harry, whom Jane has just met. “You just went places here. You went with a stranger.” The two quickly become lovers.
Drawn from journalistic accounts of the abducted children, Thirty Girls unfolds in alternating chapters. Esther speaks in first person, telling her story in a series of quick, searing flashbacks, her voice as tightly reined-in as she is. “With the rebels, I thought there was not more to be ripped in me, but there was. There always is more if you are living.”
Jane’s journey, in contrast, is told in third person, the prose impressionistic, sensual, her experiences immediate. She is so taken up in the moment and with Harry, her original reason for coming to Uganda is obscured. A hundred pages elapse before she finally starts researching the LRA. This allows the award-winning author to wedge in some historical details and context.
More, it seems to offer great narrative possibility, for Jane to transcend her own narcissism, to awaken within her a compassion toward these children robbed of childhood. “Here she was reading about hostages and terrorists while wondering like an idiot if a boy she liked liked her back.” Jane’s realization should be the novel’s turning point. It isn’t.
Nor does the turning point emerge when at last Jane reaches the refugee camp. Yet as she interviews the children, what has been no more than an assignment assumes a brutal reality even Jane can’t dismiss. Esther, she learns, has witnessed horrific torture. She has participated in it. She has been given like property to be a “wife” of one of the guerrilla commanders. The meeting between Esther and Jane offers both women a glimmering of redemption but comes too late in the narrative, and — like a final, plot twist — feels forced.
Given all that has happened — and is still happening — in Uganda and Sudan, Thirty Girls can have no happy ending. Minot can only bestow on Esther a dignity that despite what she has done feels earned and entirely natural, and do her best to answer Esther’s question, “How can one tell a story so full of shame?”
In the case of Thirty Girls, bravely, imperfectly.
Ellen Kanner is a writer in Miami.