Joseph Campbell — America’s most famous interpreter of myths — once said that those who search for the meaning of life are fooling themselves. What they’re really looking for is life’s exhilaration, a spirit as alert as the flesh, the rapture of being alive. Joseph Conrad, one of humanity’s darkest witnesses, put it another way: “Life rolls on in bitter waves . . . and the unhappy souls who have elected to make the pilgrimage on foot . . . skirt the shore and look uncomprehendingly upon the horror.”
Susan Minot’s damaged heroine of “Thirty Girls” — a journalist filled with self-loathing and a slew of failures — figures somewhere in between. Jane does not feel the rapture of being alive unless she is face-to-face with the horror.
Minot is known for her spare, atmospheric stories in which women struggle to understand men, and complicated pasts emerge slowly, haltingly, through cryptic dialogue and fractured scenes, until the intensity becomes so fierce that final scenes virtually explode. Her novel “Monkeys” chronicled a wealthy New England family through alcoholism to swift, unexpected tragedy. “Folly” told of lovers who went separate ways until fate flung them together again. “Evening,” Minot’s most accomplished work, was a delirium of love and loss in which a dying, elderly woman in Boston remembers her life’s most passionate interlude. “Rapture” recounted a sexual encounter between former lovers whose minds are curiously detached from the spirited lovemaking at hand.
“Thirty Girls,” on the other hand, is a categorical departure for Minot: It takes place in war-torn Africa. Malevolent forces, random and furious — far from the petty savageries of urbane New England — are what drive the story here.
Jane, an American writer, has come to Africa to document the horrors of tens of thousands of children who have been abducted from homes and conscripted into the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), a Ugandan rebel group led by Joseph Kony, a charismatic religious cult leader. Minot bases her story on real-life events, chronicling a mass abduction from a Catholic girls’ school in Aboke that took place at dawn on Oct. 10, 1996. More than 100 girls are taken, but the school’s headmistress, risking her life to follow the rebels into the bush, persuades their leader to keep only 30.
Running parallel to Jane’s journey into Africa are the peregrinations of Esther Akelllo, 14 years old, kidnapped in that early morning raid and made to march with an army of captive “child soldiers” in an insane war against the standing government.
Within hours of Jane’s arrival in Nairobi, she falls in with the group of white bohemians who will accompany her on the assignment: Lana, an exuberantly promiscuous film-set designer, home from London for a spell; Don, Lana’s loutish American lover; Pierre, a French photographer with a seemingly inexhaustible libido; Harry, a handsome young British Kenyan, in whose thrall Jane immediately falls.
Jane is 17 years older than Harry, and there is little that would suggest their lightning attraction. He is barely in his 20s, an avid paraglider who lives in his parents’ house in Nairobi and has no apparent ambitions. Falling into bed before they get a chance to truly know each other, Jane and Harry watch each other’s pasts emerge: She is a fugitive from countless failed loves, a divorcee whose drugged-out ex-husband died of an overdose some years ago. He is awaiting the return of the girl he claims to love, a Reiki masseuse — a fragile doll with a child’s body and an old woman’s hands, who has run off to another boyfriend in a faraway city.
Woven into this lurching narrative of jaded sybarites is the transfixing story of the child Esther, who has been snatched from her bed, raped serially, made to walk until her feet bleed and forced to perform atrocities on fellow children. Unlike Jane’s scattered, bewildered, self-indulgent ruminations about men and sex, Esther’s account is steel-hard and chastening. She feels she has become as brutal as her captors. “My gaze looks at what is happening,” she tells us, “but a small gate in my brain makes a space and I leave through it. What I am watching continues on, in a separate place glassed off, in a universe of its own. The hands holding my stick are no longer mine.” At a reunion with other children who have escaped the LRA, Esther describes their unwillingness to talk about what they have endured. “We girls are stone trees walking into the yard,” she says. “No one says what is in her heart.”
What is in Jane’s heart, however, we hear all too fulsomely, in a bizarre jumble of confessions. Jane is lit by her sexual encounter with Harry, infused with a hunger she didn’t know she had. “People said that men were the ones who thought about sex all the time. She was like a man then. Except that after sex she thought about it more, not less. . . . Sex was the wire in the dark, the jolt to the spirit, like the shocks they give people with massive coronaries to get things beating again.” But pages later, Jane is dithering about carnal knowledge, contradicting herself: “Her body accepted the occupation of him, whether chosen or not. Apparently being occupied by a man did not have to do with suitability or personality. The body decided and the mind followed, helpless. This usurpation seemed to be, she noticed, relegated to females.” In other words, while little Esther is staring at humanity with deadeye precision, big Jane is skirting the shore.
And so it is that Jane and Esther, two female travelers from different universes, are fated to meet, look into one another’s eyes and take away important lessons about life’s meaning. Minot would like us to believe they have led parallel lives — that they have both known displacement, heartbreak and what it is to try to wrest meaning from tragic loss. Reading her book, we know better.
They are anything but equals. Esther, taken from harsh reality, is an extraordinary character. Jane, a gallimaufry of Minot’s past female protagonists, is a mere wraith. And Henry? Alas, he remains a device, rather than a full-blown actor.
This is not to say that the novel doesn’t have its moments. There are passages about Africa that prove Minot’s skills: “A small girl in a shredded purple dress stood frozen, watching Jane and Harry, her face opening like a flower as they passed.” Or this: “The kitchen has a small roof and all sides open to the fire pit and brick oven and there you see Francis cooking. Chickens peck around. We had chickens and when I was small I liked to hold them as pets. They were nervous, but if you keep patient they will calm down and stay in your lap even if their eyes are startled.”
So it is with Minot’s writing. It is an acquired taste, nervous. But if you keep patient, all its 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.
Arana, a writer at large for The Washington Post, is the former editor in chief of Book World.
By Susan Minot
Knopf. 309 pp. $26.95