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THIRTY GIRLS by Susan Minot



Pub Date: Feb. 11th, 2014
ISBN: 978-0-307-26638-5
Publisher: Knopf

Minot (Rapture, 2002, etc.) tries to combine a fictionalized but mostly journalistic account of the abduction of Ugandan children by Joseph Kony’s Lord’s Resistance Army with a sexual drama about the doomed romance of an American writer and a much younger white Kenyan.

The title refers to the actual girls taken from St. Mary’s Catholic boarding school in northern Uganda in 1996 by Kony’s rebels. The early scenes following the seizure of the young girls are riveting, the attempt of the school’s Italian nun to retrieve them—she wins the release of more than 100 girls while Kony’s men keep the strongest and most attractive for themselves—heartbreaking. The child-army experience is narrated through the eyes of Esther, who, like many of the St. Mary’s girls, eventually manages to escape to a rehab center. Esther’s narrative of her captivity and attempt to recover is intercut with the story of an American writer named Jane who has come to Africa to write about the St. Mary girls. Before traveling to Uganda, Jane stays in Nairobi, where she falls in with a group of expats and white Kenyans who read like Ernest Hemingway retreads: sexual free spirit Lana, her stuffy rich American lover, Don, sexy world-weary photographer Pierre. In her late 30s, Jane finds herself falling in love with Kenyan paraglider Harry, who is maybe 23. The group accompanies Jane to Uganda as a kind of a lark, but the mood sours as the privileged whites face the enormity of the atrocities committed against the kidnapped children, who were turned into murderers and sex slaves and are now struggling to readjust. Eventually, Jane interviews Esther, who tells her story, but even while Jane claims to be deeply moved by Esther’s tragedy, she is obsessing about Harry’s waning interest in their affair. Ultimately, Jane’s drama reaches its own tragic conclusion, proving perhaps that bad stuff can happen anywhere.  

Despite hauntingly beautiful prose, there is a secondhand feel to Esther’s story, which plays fiddle to Jane’s navel-gazing.