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54 of 57 people found the following review helpful
on February 27, 2014
Format: HardcoverVine Customer Review of Free Product( What's this? )
This is one of those books that's sold as a story of atrocities in a little-known country, but that actually focuses on the mundane angst of a visiting American.

Jane is a 38-year-old writer from New York, who travels to Uganda to recover from a failed marriage. She soon meets the much younger Harry, to whom she attaches herself like a barnacle, obsessing about the relationship while setting out with a group of aimless expats on a road trip to interview children kidnapped by Kony's Lord's Resistance Army. The children include Esther, a teenage girl taken hostage along with most of her Catholic school classmates.

Unfortunately, the book skims over the true drama of Esther's and the other girls' stories, in favor of the mundane details of Jane's trip and her affair; indeed, Esther narrates only a third of the book, for all that it's supposedly about the thirty girls. I suspect Jane's chapters are based on personal experience, because they have the ring of travel stories ("The roads were terrible, and when we finally arrived, what we thought was a hotel turned out to be a brothel! And THEN, we asked someone where to find a hotel, and he offered to let us stay at his house!"). Like many travel anecdotes, they are less interesting than the teller imagines, and the road trip drags on interminably. Even when the group finally arrives in what we're told is a war zone, all that seems to be at stake for them is who's sleeping with whom.

I don't blame Jane for continuing to inhabit her own life, despite being horrified by the plight of the LRA's victims; it's an honest portrayal of the way most people respond to the suffering of strangers. I do, however, blame the author for using the story of the kidnapped girls as a hook to draw readers in to the dull mid-life-crisis tale of a privileged American. Another expat tells Jane she has a "wild spirit," but this is nowhere in evidence: she's needy, insecure, content to hand over the reins of her journalistic mission to a group of pleasure-seekers she's just met, and ultimately bland. Meanwhile, though Esther's story has a few shining moments, she is so underdeveloped as to come across as little more than a standard resilient victim. The other girls hardly register except as a jumble of traditional English names (is everyone in Uganda really named this way?) attached to acts of violence. Even the deaths of children at the hands of the LRA are rushed; it's only when a white expat is the victim of violence that Minot fully develops the event and its consequences.

As for the writing, Minot does a good job of capturing speech rhythms; I immediately heard the East African accent in Esther's narration, for instance. Her style itself, however.... well, see for yourself:

"Harry turned right down a slope of flattened grass strewn with hulking boulders at the end of which sat a stone house with a thatched roof."

"A sliver of light green pool could be seen at the end of an alley of cedar trees and a gigantic palm tree rose far past the other trees like an exploding firework. Marsh stretched beyond with inky grass markings and black twisted trees. The purple lozenge of the lake lay farther."

Ultimately, this book bored and disappointed me; the story of the kidnapped girls is worthy of a novel but becomes little more than the backdrop against which Jane's identity crisis plays out, and Jane's story lacks the vitality and insight to carry the narrative itself. I recommend passing on this one.
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38 of 43 people found the following review helpful
on March 9, 2014
Format: Hardcover
Ms. Minot took the story of the Thirty Girls and used it to write a book. Those girls had a horrific experience.

I heard Ms. Minot on NPR. She was asked if she'd be using any of the profits of her book to help these girls. She replied that she had to pay off debts, and that she had a daughter to support. After that, she said, she'd "look into" giving some help to the Ugandan girls.

She says she wanted to raise awareness about this story. But during the NPR interview, she did not mention the very comprehensive book about this kidnapping written 5 years ago. It is called Stolen Angels. It is nonfiction (not fictionalized like Thirty Girls) and tells all about this terrible incident. And that author donates profits from her book to help the girls she writes about.

I was pretty surprised that Ms. Minot went back to Uganda to interview the girls and actually tried to get them to talk about their rapes. They didn't want to share much with her, she says. No surprise there, Ms. Minot! What an insensitive (and potentially harmful) thing to do to traumatized young women. Make them talk about their rapes so you can write a book about it.
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17 of 17 people found the following review helpful
on February 23, 2014
Format: Kindle EditionVerified Purchase
Who cares about all the teenage angst professed by a middle aged women? The story is the girls and the plight of children. The author uses the true story as a come on to attract readers to a story about a decidedly uninteresting main character. The thirty girls are a subplot. Such a shame. They deserved better.
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29 of 33 people found the following review helpful
on February 13, 2014
Format: Kindle Edition
By alternating between the narrative voice of Jane Wood and Esther Akello, Susan Minot creates a sharp juxtaposition of emotions in Thirty Girls, a fictionalized real life tragedy. Jane is an American journalist who has traveled to Nairobi and is planning to travel to Uganda in order to interview the girls who have escaped from the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA ) led by the infamous Joseph Kony. Esther was one of the 30 Ugandan girls kept by the LRA from their convent school in 1996. This was after 100 girls were released to a nun from the school. While Esther is simply trying to recover from her years of rape and abuse, Jane hangs out with a privileged group of cohorts who decide to accompany her to Uganda.

Minot uses great discernment in capturing the subtle nuances of Esther's psychological as well as physical recovery. Esther's story is difficult to read, heart breaking. She is struggling to simply survive day by day, hoping to recover some normalcy but plagued by memories and thoughts of her detestable captivity. Her story is the heart and soul of the book - and it is tragic.

My problem with Thirty Girls is Jane. For me she detracts from the real story. The horrific experiences Esther endured make Jane look shallow, narcissistic, and rather aimless. While Jane is in Africa to interview the recovering abducted girls, she seems less interested in Esther's story than in her own silly love affair with a younger man. Jane is just annoying as heck.

Thirty Girls is a beautifully written novel, and Esther's story will touch your life, but I wish Jane had not been inserted into her story. It lessened the impact of the narrative for me.

Thirty Girls by Susan Minot is recommended.

Disclosure: My Kindle edition was courtesy of Knopf Doubleday via Edelweiss for review purposes.
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32 of 37 people found the following review helpful
Format: HardcoverVine Customer Review of Free Product( What's this? )
"In unflinching prose, Minot interweaves their stories, giving us razor-sharp portraits of two extraordinary young women confronting displacement, heartbreak, and the struggle to wrest meaning from events that test them both in unimaginable ways." So says the publisher's letter. Would it only were true! There are two principal women, certainly. One is Esther, a teenage survivor of abduction, rape, and brutalization by the Lord's Resistance Army in Uganda in the late 1990s. The other is Jane Wood, an American journalist fleeing a divorce; at 38, she is hardly young, and it is difficult to see anything extraordinary about her at all.

Unfortunately, Minot chooses to start with Jane, arriving in Nairobi and staying in the house of a casual friend. The atmosphere is like a floating house-party with a constant stream of Europeans and Americans dropping in and out, eating, drinking, swimming, or going on impromptu excursions. And making love. Jane hooks up with a man fifteen years her junior, and clearly has more need of him than he of her. But then Jane seems defined more by her needs than anything positive she can contribute in her own right. Indeed, the whole crew seemed little more than hangers-on, observers of the life of a continent not their own but in no way a part of it.

It was fairly obvious where Minot might be going. She would take her two contrasted women, one a drone and the other a victim, bring them together, and see what changes they might effect in each other's lives.* Fair enough, except that she takes so long about it. Jane does not even reach Uganda until page 140, and will not meet Esther for some time after that. And while Minot can get us somewhat engaged in Esther's story from the moment we meet her, there is almost nothing to get us interested in Jane's, unless you count a few nights of needy sex.

Which means that the novel sinks or swims on the portrayal of Esther. The Lord's Resistance Army is a real group, half religious cult, half militia, founded in the late eighties by a self-styled prophet named Joseph Kony (who appears as a character in the novel). They have a history of abducting children, the boys as soldiers and the girls for breeding with the adult members. There is also a well-documented history of atrocities of all sorts, waged both against the civilian population and within their own community. So the things that Esther remembers are indeed horrific, whether they are done to her, done in front of her, or done under duress by her. Readers who regard fiction as a form of reportage may well be moved. But I found it hard to focus on Esther as a created character, or connect her to what she was describing. Her tone seemed artificial; her narrative jumped about in time; and she was but one among a number of easily-confusable mission girls, without even a clear ethnic identity, all called by conventional Catholic names like Agnes, Louise, or Mary.

I am sure it could be said that this is the way that the shattered memories of trauma victims actually work. I am also sure that Minot's portrayal of the meaningless life of society's hangers-on is pretty accurate. But victim or drone, if one narrative is fractured and the other featureless, how can the reader feel for the characters as rounded people, rather than random flotsam? And without such empathy, where are those razor-sharp portraits, where is the novel?

*Another recent novel that contrasts wealthy Europeans with suffering Africans, but that worked rather better for me, is Lawrence Osborne's THE FORGIVEN, set in the mountains of Morocco.
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6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
on May 7, 2014
Format: Hardcover
This book is a jarring juxtaposition of two stories. One, based on Minot’s reporting from Africa during the 1990’s, gives voice to Esther, an African girl who, along with her school mates, is kidnapped by Kony and the Lord’s Resistance Army. She eventually escapes and makes her way to a rehab center and home, but is naturally quite traumatized. Minot narrates her story in the first person.

Minot gives far more attention to Jane, a shallow, self-obsessed, entitled New York divorcee who hears about the kidnapped girls, and with little writing experience and even less research, takes off for Africa to “do something." Jane hooks up with an enclave of other well-to-do Westerners and they go swanning around the war zone, having an African adventure. Jane is the sort of self-centered, 38 year-old twit who starts sleeping with the nearest guy, a 23 year-old, and when he dumps her, asks herself deep questions like, “Who am I?”

I don’t mind unlikeable characters, but I like to believe the author sees through them. In Thirty Girls, and in a few interviews I’ve read with the author, there’s little sense of that. Instead, Minot presents Jane’s suffering as on a par with Esther’s. Esther and Africa become props for Jane, in all her cringe-worthy narcissism, to have an adventure and feel more alive. When Jane and Esther’s paths finally cross, the author adds insult to injury by letting Jane be the great white savior – the catalyst for Esther’s healing. By that point, I felt morally compromised for just reading this book.

Minot writes lovely prose, and she effectively describes Esther’s experiences and strength. But Jane was a bore, and it was sad overall to see such moral obtuseness and insensitivity.
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5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
on March 23, 2014
Format: Kindle EditionVerified Purchase
Other reviewers have already stated the strengths of this book--as well as its weaknesses. I, for one, appreciated Minot's prose in expressing the inner thoughts of Esther, and more rarely, I enjoyed those of Jane. But like many readers, I felt the dueling stories to be lopsided--with the larger weight placed upon the least interesting scenario.

So, given that the more profound territory has been covered in these reviews, I will risk making a trivial point. While plenty have remarked about the insipid character of Jane, I must ask: What about Harry? At one point when he's asked about his role in the group, he answers: "I drive." Yes, and apparently, he's supposed to DRIVE the whole novel. But really, when he's not paragliding or behind the wheel, he's pretty much a jerk in a jaunty hat. (Spoiler Alert) The only interesting thing he actually does is to get himself killed--becoming, of course, St. Harry. Yeah, I know. Poor guy. He just stumbled into the wrong novel, and look what happened...
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10 of 12 people found the following review helpful
Format: HardcoverVine Customer Review of Free Product( What's this? )
"...you think you could die you are so in love with life."

It seems impossible that a novel interweaving the story of Martha Gellhorn-esque American journalist Jane (some of the prose and the themes of the whole novel have a curious Hemingway ethos) and child soldier or CAAFIG (a term for child combatants I learned thanks to this novel) Esther Akello of Aboke, Uganda could contain a sentence such as the one above. This is the gift of Susan Minot's writing. The author of the book Monkeys, a brilliant warm New England family young adult drama, lends her delicate observational powers to African conflict, sexual slavery, teenagers forced to kill, and a fragile love affair set in the era of Clinton and Lewinsky, when the girls of St. Mary's in Uganda were abducted and then returned to refugee camps.

Confession: I picked up this book for information and background on CAAFIGs and Africa. I was not entirely convinced, at first, of the story of Jane, a foreigner and journalist trying to find her way in work and love, and in her own way, searching for a spiritual home. Her displacement is spiritual, Esther's violently physical and then cast into the landscape of post-trauma. Yet it is Jane's displacement that sends her in search of Esther's story, and I came to care deeply about Jane because she is very believable. She is not a cardboard do-gooder journalist--she is a Martha Gellhorn full of passion and uncomfortable emotions who recognizes the absurdity of mooning over the younger Harry O'Day in a war zone. The book is part drama, part love story, part road movie, part coming-of-age, but manages to blend all the parts in a seamless quilt. A moving, powerful work.
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
Format: HardcoverVine Customer Review of Free Product( What's this? )
This is a novel whose title characters have somehow endured and survived what we -- and some of its other characters -- can only begin to understand. But somehow, in its execution, it becomes more about a Very Important American Novelist writing an Important Novel about an Important Global Issue.

And that's perhaps the biggest tragedy of all: that in its execution, Minot's narrative ends up distancing the reader from the plight of Esther and the other girls, survivors of one of Africa's all-too-many tragic conflicts.

Yes, the "adventures" of Jane and other Westerners who travel to Africa out of their own needs -- a need to do good, a need to escape, a need for adventure -- form a valid part of this narrative. But Minot's approach to this jarred with me. Somehow, Esther's struggles and those of the Westerners are ranked as if they were of roughly equal importance to the book. There's no wry, sarcastic tone to Minot's glimpse at Jane and her colleagues; there's no self-awareness on the part of many of these individuals. Or if there is, it flew right over my head.

Part of the problem for me, too, may have been the overly structured and elegantly crafted prose, which felt as if it "privileged" the narratives of Jane, Henry and the other expats over the voices of the girls. It also felt at odds with the gritty reality that Minot was describing.

Ultimately, questions of merit seemed to me beside the point; all that I was left with was a feeling of distaste. Instead of the focused, pointed, sharply observed novel that I was hoping for, I found a rambling and overwritten narrative dominated by characters that never came alive for me.

While reading this, my mind kept flashing back to NoViolet Bulawayo's "We Need New Names", a book I read several months ago, and which I found very uneven but that had something that this technically more proficient novel lacks: heart, soul and authenticity. Bulawayo's novel is a quasi-autobiographical novel by a young African woman about growing up in and leaving Africa, and it's a vivid and immediate picture, one that grabs you and doesn't let you go. When it doesn't work, it has at least tried honestly to get there. I can't say the same about this book. I never once got the sense that Jane and Esther were real, living and breathing characters; rather, that this was a Big Idea that had been shaped and developed deliberately by research. Altogether underwhelming.
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
Format: HardcoverVine Customer Review of Free Product( What's this? )
"Thirty Girls," is the story of an American journalist, Jane, who travels to Uganda to interview young women who were kidnapped by the Lord's Resistance Army in the nineties, who have managed to escape and who are now trying to put their lives back together. Moved by an activist, Grace Dollo, when she gives a speech about the trials these girls have undergone, Jane hopes to succeed in conveying their stories to the rest of the world. Once abroad, Jane begins an affair with a native African, Harry, who does cool stuff like paragliding and riding a motorcycle and who happens to be much younger than she is. Jane, who is on the rebound after a failed relationship with a drug addict, has strong feelings for Harry but also feels shame. The narrative is divided between Jane and Esther, whose story is a great deal more moving and easy to become engrossed in. . When the two finally meet, the pace picks up greatly, but unfortunately, the reader has to wade through over a hundred pages of Jane's preparations, as she meets her (mostly white) colleagues in Africa, and they engage in an endless round of parties, play and sex.

Before she was taken, Esther was a good student at a Catholic all-girls' school who hoped to become a teacher one day. During her time with the army, she is forced to deal with sexual assault, physical hardship and witnesses the abuse and torture of the other girls in captivity. In some cases, the boys who were drafted and carried out the orders were even younger than her. Now in a place of sanctuary, Esther is urged to draw and talk about her feelings, but she feels ambivalent: about her past, present and future. It will take time before she is ready to move on.

I found Jane's story quite dull before she meets Esther. If the novel had begun with the two meeting or if it had not taken so long. I would have given this book five stars. However, Esther's perspective is both harrowing and uplifting, as she begins to see that she does have choices, and that her will to live and be compassionate has not been destroyed by what she has been through.
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