‘Doesn’t go far enough’ – Thirty Girls by Susan Minot
Esther is one of 139 students captured from a Ugandan girls’ boarding school by the Lord’s Resistance Army, led by Joseph Kony; most of the girls are quickly released, but thirty, including Esther, are kept on to become part of Kony’s ‘family’, an expanding group of sexually and otherwise brutalized children and young adults. Jane is an American writer, still struggling to find any cohesion in her life after the death of her junky ex-husband; she comes to Africa to cover the story of the kidnapped girls and gets involved with a young Kenyan man, Harry, while staying with a group of assorted ex-pats. The two women’s narratives intertwine as Jane nears the rehabilitation centre where Esther is living, having escaped the LRA. Trauma, love, trust and human connection are the main themes here, and the material’s rich enough to supply all this in spades, but underwhelmed would be my key word if I were to have to choose.
The real-life horrors of the LRA are undeniably terrifying – Minot’s notes at the end of the text, giving some context for the novel’s events by supplying actual stats for the abductions and a brief history of the LRA, are more shocking than most of what we encounter in the text itself. Why’s this? It’s a little hard to quantify – I’ve been mulling for a week – but here’s a few possibilities.
One: the issues of narrative drive and the mode of narrations are a little muddy. We know from the start that Esther has escaped. The bulk of her portions of the text comprise her attempt to deal with her own trauma by reconstituting her memories of the various ordeals she underwent, and that’s fine, but it does mean that there’s not much riding on those sections except perhaps a sort of readerly sadism, meaning we want to hear about the awful things that happened. I’m not also particularly convinced by this representation of trauma: while Minot references trauma theory briefly in the text (the debate on whether traumatic memory is or is not irretrievably repressed by the trauma survivor), the actual text presents Esther’s memories in a very unproblematic linear way; there’s no sense of blockage or fragmentation or even the repetition (traumatic return) that’s usually said to characterize that mode of memory and writing, fictionalized or otherwise. (Morrison’s Beloved is a good touchstone for another way of exploring trauma in text.) Esther’s in a bad way, sure, and awful things happened to her, but as a text, it’s too straightforward; it doesn’t enact the psychological mess that Esther’s undoubtedly experiencing. On Jane’s side, the story meanders enormously. She’s in Africa to cover this violent crime and to interview the surviving escapees (Esther’s half of the text is her own written version of the story she tells Jane; we don’t ever get Jane’s account, unless the whole book purports to be that, but I think that’s pushing the interpretive envelope a little), but most of the story is about her shenanigans with the ex-pats as they fuck and drink and have elaborate sleepovers in Kenya and Uganda. There’s a good amount of sociological and post-colonial interest in the way the non-native whites react to their surroundings – Lana disengages from it, while Don is flippant and rude and unbearable, but ultimately donates a significant amount of money to the rehabilitation team; Jane is horrified and fascinated by the abductions (and by Esther herself), but is content to spend most of her trip lazily drifting from one party to the next and obsessing over Harry, a young local paraglider and jack-of-all-trades who lives in and for the moment. No spoilers, but the shock of the last section is designed, I think, to burst that particular bubble, so that Jane and the reader are reminded that there are no idylls, etc. Still, on one side we’ve got a tale of abduction that’s already been answered, and on the other we’ve got n investigative journalist who’s mostly failing to do any investigating, and overall, that means we’ve got three hundred pages of text with very little plot.
Ought that to be a problem? It’s not all always about plot, of course. Language and characterization and setting can go a very long way in literary fiction, after all. My second point, then: there’s little differentiation in narrative voice between Esther (a young African girl) and Jane (an older American writer), which means that the whole thing starts to blur together into the fairly generic ‘literary-ese’ that’s the bane of much contemporary fiction. I think Minot’s made an attempt to differentiate them; there are slight faux-naïve touches to Esther’s English diction (‘The boys especially are fighting many times’; ‘Philip I waited to think of at night’), but that doesn’t go so very far, for me: the otherwise fluent nature of Esther’s narrative isn’t haf as far from Jane’s as I’d expect it to be. I suggested earlier that perhaps the whole book, Esther included, could be read as Jane’s account –although I’m not convinced by that argument myself – but even at that, the issue of how Esther is presented is still relevant and problematic.
Three: the characterisation isn’t enormously compelling. Harry’s a cipher for young, gauche men; Don’s (mostly) the stereotypical Western boor; Lana’s the feckless, bored female expat with nothing to do except seduce other travellers; Jane’s…well, Jane’s a writer who fails to write and whose motivation regarding her actual mission to Africa is sketchy at best. If we’re to accept her as a flake, avoiding her problems by flying to Kenya and metaphorically sticking her head in the sand by mooning over Harry instead of checking out the LRA, that’s one thing, but she’s presented with a degree of sincerity that seems to preclude this more negative interpretation; and yet, her sincerity is swept over with her willingness to party hard and take it easy, which makes her way less sympathetic as a (wannabe) journalist. She’s a hard one to like, and while that’s not really important, she’s also a hard one to cling to as the centre of a narrative that’s allegedly about the exploration of trauma, partly because her own trauma (the dead ex) isn’t all that interesting compared to the one she’s evading over the border in Uganda. And the black African characters – Esther, Louise, Agnes – don’t get much airtime, comparatively.
Any Cop?: It’s interesting, for sure: you can’t write a novel about Kony and the LRA without it being interesting. But it’s flat; it doesn’t go far enough in its exploration of trauma, the characters aren’t that compelling and there’s no real tension. I think it’ll please quite a few readers simply because of the topic, and Minot has a deserved fan-base, but this isn’t her finest work.
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- February 19, 2014 / 8:43 am