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Originally published Sunday, March 30, 2014 at 6:15 AM

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Susan Minot’s ‘Thirty Girls’: surviving suffering in Uganda

In Susan Minot’s novel “Thirty Girls,” the author imagines an unforgettable encounter — between a narcissistic American writer and a Ugandan girl who has endured unimaginable suffering.

Special to The Seattle Times

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‘Thirty Girls’

by Susan Minot

Knopf, 309 pp., $31

There’s an old saying that you make your own misery, which makes perfect sense if you’re talking about American writer Jane Wood, one of two main characters in Susan Minot’s excellent, evocative novel “Thirty Girls.” Pushing 40, she blames her own predilections almost too much for the angst that accompanies her to Africa and a meeting with the book’s other protagonist, Esther Akello.

In contrast to Jane, the 16-year-old Esther has been given few options. She has been beaten and raped and given birth. Under orders, she clubbed a friend to death. The girl sums up what’s left in the wake of these traumas: “Sometimes your spirit is so heavy you say to it, I cannot carry you around.”

Esther is the fictional representative of a real-life event, the 1996 abduction of a convent’s worth of Catholic school girls by an outlaw group called the Lord’s Resistance Army. The LRA, which still operates in and around Uganda, survives by terrorizing villagers and recruiting young men who must either kill or be killed. Young women are abducted to serve as sex slaves under the same ruthless code.

Minot’s version of the story opens when the school is attacked and a brave nun pursues her students’ abductors, bargaining for their return. She is allowed to take back all but 30, with Esther among those left behind. The girl survives her experience and is sent to a rehabilitation center. She recounts what happened to her in chapters that alternate with a third-person narrative about Jane.

The more distant third person is a good choice for Jane. She’s the perfect Minot character, cool on the surface and tormented inside (a dichotomy that was pushed to its limits in another superb Minot novel, “Evening”). She can’t stop thinking about her ex-husband, who died from a drug overdose, or the shapelessness of her own life.

After she lands in Nairobi, Jane joins a group of mostly white expatriates who fashion their days from the loose fabric of few demands and low expectations. She hooks up with Harry, who becomes her lover and agrees to take her to Uganda to interview survivors of the LRA’s savagery. The mission quickly becomes a field trip for all who want to go along.

Jane is too wrapped up in Harry and her own doubts to ponder the group’s casual mores and nonchalance about their proximity to extreme violence. But Don, another recent arrival with a rich guy’s intolerance for norms different from his own, is more sharp-eyed.

“What’s with you people here?” he demands at one point in their journey, a rhetorical question. And, to Jane: “You don’t know who you are.”

It’s true; Jane is lost, and her moment of greatest clarity in the book comes when she meets Esther and absorbs with deep empathy the terrible things that happened to her.

“Thirty Girls” sketches the landscape with impressionist strokes and then burrows in to view the cruelties people can visit on one other and themselves. To Minot’s writerly credit, the novel turns Jane into a larger person than her narcissistic soul searching suggests, and Esther into more than the sum of the atrocities she has endured.

Ellen Emry Heltzel is a Portland writer and book critic.

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