The central drama in Susan Minot's fourth novel comes from a real-life episode in October 1996, when 139 girls at St. Mary's College in Aboke, Uganda, were abducted by guerillas from the militant Lord's Resistance Army. The school's Italian headmistress followed the rebels into the bush and retrieved all but 30 of the girls — hence the title.
Minot is best known for exquisite minimalist explorations of love, desire, and complicated family ties among upper-crust Easterners. Her most recent novel, Rapture, focuses minutely on what two former lovers are thinking while having sex.
So a story like Thirty Girls seems like a dramatic departure for Minot. But, in fact, she's written about the Aboke abductions before — she draws on her own 2002 journalistic account for the novel's gripping section on the school raid. And she creates an intimate portrait of the tormented 15-year-old Esther Akello, an abductee who escaped, and was living in a rehabilitation camp. "In the bush I sometimes dreamed I was at home, and then waking up would make home disappear. Here girls wake up screaming."
Minot alternates Esther's haunted voice with the story of Jane Wood, an American writer who has traveled to Africa to write about the kidnapped girls. jane is a lonely woman in her late thirties whose ex-husband has died of an overdose. After meeting the mother of one of the kidnapped girls at a New York dinner party, she takes off for Africa with only the sketchiest of plans. "I will do something, she told herself, I will help ... The impulse registered deep within her and seemed to become solid. Her usual habit of undercutting a new thought did not break in."
In Kenya, Jane stays with Lana, whose cottage is "where people returned from war zones, from managing famines, from living in tents among the elephants, or being gored by buffalo, a place where everyone seemed matter-of-factly to lead a life of extremity and daring."
Minot's journalist seems to do little to research her story in advance. At her first sundowner in the Ngong Hills, Jane starts an affair with Harry, a man in his early twenties who is obsessed with paragliding. Within a week Jane sets off on the hazardous drive to northern Uganda with Harry, Lana, boyfriend of the moment, Don, and Pierre, a photographer between gigs.
Minot describes Jane's gradual immersion in this new world in panoramic detail. More extraordinary is her poetic depiction of Esther's slow painful recovery from the damage done — abduction, rape, becoming a "wife" to one of the guerilla soldiers, and being forced to steal, fight and kill.
By the time Esther's path and Jane's intersect briefly, late in the book, we understand their separate histories. Jane comes away with a story, Esther with a touchstone that may open her up to healing. And Minot shows her readers that war zones cannot be contained within one country, or one region. When cruelty and violence reign, we are all at risk.