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Thirty Girls Hardcover – Deckle Edge, February 11, 2014
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*Starred Review* Rebels in the Lord’s Resistance Army in Uganda burst into a convent dormitory, seize 139 schoolgirls, and march them off into the night. Sister Giulia follows and bravely argues for their release. She returns with 109. The outlaws keep 30, including smart, courageous Esther. Jane, an American writer and youngish widow, visits a friend in Kenya, sexy, generous Lana, and takes up with Harry, who is passionate about paragliding—a poetic and apt embodiment of the illusion of freedom: though you feel exhilarated in flight, you are at the mercy of forces beyond your control. Jane is on her way to Uganda to speak with young women at a camp for traumatized children who escaped their enslavement to the psychotic rebels. Lana, Harry, a wealthy American businessman, and a French documentarian decide, cavalierly, to accompany her. In her first novel in more than a decade, spellbinding Minot (Rapture, 2002; Evening, 1998), a writer of exquisite perception and nuance, contrasts Esther’s and Jane’s radically different, yet profoundly transforming journeys in a perfectly choreographed, slow-motion, devastatingly revealing collision of realities. So sure yet light is Minot’s touch in this master work, so piercing yet respectful her insights into suffering and strength, that she dramatizes horrific truths, obdurate mysteries, and painful recognition with both bone-deep understanding and breathtaking beauty. --Donna Seaman
"Wrenching . . . Suspenseful . . . By far her best."
—The New York Times
“A novel of quiet humanity and probing intelligence . . . Minot is particularly good on the topology of desire . . . But it’s the story of what happened to those 30 abducted girls that shows Minot’s gifts as a writer . . . Minot takes huge questions and examines them with both a delicate touch and a cleareyed, unyielding scrutiny.”
—The New York Times Book Review
“Clear and searing . . . Pulls you in from the first page . . . The details are rendered with empathy, and both main characters occupied honorably in their struggles. It forces the reader to consider how much luck fashions the basic architecture of our lives. And how, despite all the vast differences in that architecture, what we strive for is remarkably the same . . . A book that looks hard at trauma, love, and humanity, that contemplates the wide potential spectrum of life, concluding perhaps that life is not competition between us, but instead a struggle within each of us for whatever ‘twigs’ of love and happiness we can manage, no matter what the context.”
—The Boston Globe
“Extraordinary . . . Panoramic . . . Poetic . . . 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.”
“Daring . . . Minot’s cleanly sculpted prose and capacity to penetrate and open the mind and heart challenge us to step outside our comfort zone. Finally, there comes this realization: Esther and Jane aren’t so different at all. We recognize their stories as ours . . . Minot succeeds, through her fictionalized version, in making us care as much as she does.”
“Africa—described in Minot’s muscular, evocative, and unflinching prose—offers itself up to Jane in all its beguiling beauty, its unremitting violence, and breaks her open like an egg. When she meets Esther Akello, whose time in captivity has left her silent and self-hating, the two recognize in each other something that needs healing, and together they create a transcendent moment (for the reader as well) in a ‘cracked and sad’ world where ‘everything was lit and love happened.’”
“Using candid, staccato sentences that ricochet off the page like bullets on metal, the full array of Esther’s emotions about what happened to her—anger, self-loathing, fear, remorse—is respectfully portrayed and duly felt . . . Too, Minot jabs at the heart of what it means to be white and privileged in a world riddled with racial prejudice and class inequality . . . Minot can be applauded.”
—San Francisco Chronicle
“Transfixing . . . Esther, taken from harsh reality, is an extraordinary character . . . If you keep patient, all [the novel’s] scattered, neurotic strands will wind into a tight cord, and, in the end, you may calm down, stay in this writer’s hands and make sense of the exhilaration and horror.”
“Taut, harrowing . . . By the time Esther and Jane meet, each has come through tragedy to a kind of peace. But quiet, stoic Esther is the one you’ll be rooting for.”
“This is Minot unlike we have ever read her . . . Thirty Girls, a book that deserves to win a wide international readership, stands as her most powerful novel yet . . . A forceful address to readers too familiar with the inertia that buffers us from distant lands and their unknown terrors.”
—Sydney Morning Herald
“When there is a story the world needs to know, does it matter who tells it, or just that it gets told? . . . The nexus of white guilt and privilege is raised in Thirty Girls again and again . . . Minot tells both stories with such harsh, lyrical beauty that neither is easy to forget. Grade: A-.”
“A novel as raw, beautiful, and seemingly serendipitous as the politics, landscape, and culture of the sub-Saharan Africa it describes . . . Minot has an uncanny feel for the emotional hit-or-miss connections between people.”
“Gripping . . . Sensual . . . Immediate . . . Minot wants to do more than sound a drumbeat of atrocities . . . She wants to use literature to transmute a human horror into something that can be understood and in time healed.”
“Exceptional . . . Represents a broadening vision for Minot . . . She has earned a trademark on the subject of desire.”
“Poignant . . . The true heart of this novel comes from Esther and the children of the LRA. Minot captures their characters so effectively that, throughout the many scenes, one almost forgets that these specific stories and children are fiction. Esther is a stunning character whose strength and bravery is an inspiration to readers . . . Thirty Girls conveys an important story that people need to hear.”
“Skillful and moving . . . Esther’s story gives Thirty Girls moral weight, like that offered in Graham Greene’s best novels . . . We’re all suffering humans, but our capacity for empathy offers a chance of reducing that suffering. Thirty Girls brings faraway calamity home in the form of Esther, a character so endearing that shutting out her story is not an option.”
—Dallas Morning News
“Visually intense . . . Minot’s writing is so potent and the story told so tragic, the novel sears the mind.”
—New York Daily News
“Exquisitely written . . . Harrowing.”
—Time Out New York
“Truthful . . . Minot’s careful observations of emotion are as precise and honest as they were in [Evening] . . . Minot does her utmost to imagine the unimaginable.”
“Esther’s struggles are universally compelling—heartbreaking, stomach-churning . . . Factual undergirding lends a lightning crackle to her troubled sentiments . . . But by narrative’s end, it is Jane who will be tested to see if she is ready to meet life’s terrible challenges with transformative grace.”
“A book about the relativity of pain; the grace of forgiveness; and the essential unknowability of a lover.”
“Spellbinding Minot, a writer of exquisite perception and nuance, contrasts Esther’s and Jane’s radically different, yet profoundly transforming journeys in a perfectly choreographed, slow-motion, devastatingly revealing collision of realities. So sure yet light is Minot’s touch in this master work, so piercing yet respectful her insights into suffering and strength, that she dramatizes horrific truths, obdurate mysteries, and painful recognition with both bone-deep understanding and breathtaking beauty.”
—Booklist (starred review)
“Dreamlike . . . Though the shifting narratives start out highlighting the stark contrasts between the two worlds, they eventually collide as violence enters the privileged white enclave . . . A deeply affecting title that manages to express weighty sentiments and horrific events with subtlety and poetry.”
—Library Journal (starred review)
“Hotly anticipated . . . Wins the reader’s heart.”
“Haunting . . . With brilliantly effective understatement, the novel conveys Esther’s complex psychological evolution . . . Minot’s risky narrative ploy . . . pays off at the end, when senseless tragedy shows Jane how quickly lives can be changed and invests her with a higher sense of purpose.”
“Riveting . . . Heartbreaking . . . Hauntingly beautiful prose.”
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On the plus side, Esther's voice is remarkable and every nuanced word rings true. The problem is that there's too little of it. Instead, we hear far too much from Jane as she's lamenting her first-world problems in this third-world country. It's beyond annoying; it represents a huge opportunity cost.
The losers are Esther and the 29 other real women whose story gets the short straw at the expense of a character who belongs largely in another genre. The losers are us, the readers, who need desperately to be informed about these kinds of atrocities. The losers are other women who will succumb to such treatment unless we spotlight the evil-doers and work to eradicate them.
While I applaud Susan Minot's willingness to tackle this difficult and repulsive subject, I was expecting a closer examination of each of the 30 girls and related facts than she provided.
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...
The lack of quotation marks and traditionally formatted dialogue made the whole thing read in a deadpan tone, emotionless and without impact. The elimination of quotation marks also made the reading of the novel confusing in places. Many times I reread parts to ascertain whether someone was speaking aloud or if I had just read the thoughts of the narrator. Call me lazy, but I don't like to try that hard to determine whether a character is speaking or not. I have always admired authors who have mastered the art of writing dialogue so that it seamlessly flows into the tale, communicating the point but without creating hiccups in the stream of words. The dialogue in Thirty Girls is so seamless I didn't even catch it! Ha! Too much of a good thing I suppose :0).
The story is split into two clearly discernible parts. One part focuses on Ugandan teenage girl, Esther, who survived the horror of being held captive by the Lord's Resistant Army, forced to endure and commit atrocities beyond comprehension. The second part is about Jane, an American journalist writing a story about the children the Lord's Resistant Army kidnaps, holds captive, and abuses in every imaginable way. The two parts never seem to come together. Esther's part of the story comes to a close with some resolution but Jane's part, less so. Unfortunately the bulk of the novel seemed to be from Jane's point of view, which I found far less engaging than Esther's. Jane's "problems" are trivial in comparison to the trials faced by African citizens and it was difficult to be patient through the parts of the tale dedicated to her. I struggled through this entire book, finishing it ONLY because it was a book club choice. I wished the whole time that I could shut it and move on to something else. Maybe something with quotation marks... ;0)