Review: The Leper Compound by Paula Nangle

The Leper Compound by Paula Nangle is not the type of book you can just fly through. In fact I had to read it very sloooowly and pay extremely close attention. At times I felt like I had some form of Reading ADD because I couldn’t stay focused and make sense of what was written. The main character, Colleen, describes how she feels while listening to a preacher at the leper compound, and it accurately describes how I felt reading this book:

After a while she felt cold and sleepy and rocked faintly to the lulling, unfamiliar sounds of someone else’s language, words she recognized leering emptily out of the mist, unconnectible, like the bandanas and coats of lepers in front of her, bright purple and orange, splotches rising up from the mass.”

I could appreciate the beauty of the prose, but it was somewhat “unconnectible” from paragraph to paragraph. It definitely had a lulling quality, but frequently I had no idea who was who or what was going on-and I really was PAYING ATTENTION.

Basically, Colleen is a girl growing up in the last days of Rhodesia (soon to be Zimbabwe) in the very volatile 1970s and 80s, but she is white so she isn’t really involved in the conflict- it rears it’s ugly head here and there, but she is mostly unaffected by it.

Her mother died from malaria when Colleen was 7 years old. Colleen was also sick and it took a year for her to recover. This part of the story is almost hallucinogenic in the way it’s written. Colleen is sent back to boarding school once she is better but is soon separated from her younger sister, who hears voices and is sent away to a special school for the mentally ill.

So much of what goes on in Colleen’s mind is distorted and dream like, which made it particularly difficult for me to feel a connection to her. She seems separate and disconnected from the political activities and violence all around her. She is friendly with many black Africans but they don’t share with her what is really going on, so she is oblivious to what is happening politically. Maybe that is the point.. the minority white culture was clueless to the uprisings and racial unrest for a long time.

I guess this book isn’t so much about what happens, but how the writing makes you feel, because the plot was tricky to decipher throughout much of it. It’s a glimpse into another culture, a volatile time politically that probably would have made much more sense to me if I knew more about that period in Africa’s history. The lush imagery really is gorgeous, the writing complex and dense, but it made me feel dense, too! SO I would recommend this book to someone with a better knowledge of history, or a person with a much higher IQ than mine!

The author, Paula Nangle, was raised by missionaries in the US and southern Africa and is now a psychiatric nurse living in Michigan, so she obviously knows her subject matter well. Her website can be found HERE. I want to thank The Literary Ventures Fund for sending me this book.

Jen at Devourer of Books also reviewed The Leper Compound.  You can read that HERE.

9 Responses

  1. What a strange recommendation. Still, after reading this review I think I want to read the book.

  2. Hey C.B., go for it! I could put you in touch with Kate from the Literary Ventures Fund.. maybe she’d even send you a copy in exchange for a review.

  3. That sounds great. I’m on summer break so I have lots to time for reading and reviewing.

    She can email me at

  4. What a great review, Lisa. I too felt very lulled by the passage you quoted.

    The story sounds rather unique and probably more literary fiction. The plot of leprosy I find interesting and the character seems likeable enough.

    But I’m thinking it would be a no read for me–I am neither good with history nor of high IQ.

    Happy reading!

    Oh, a question: do you read and review only new books? My latest, Whale Song, was published in April 2007.

    Cheryl Kaye Tardif, author of Whale Song, The River and Divine Intervention

  5. Lisa, I read a novel called _The Island_ by Victoria Hislop about a leper island colony off Greece. While I enjoyed the background I learned about leprosy and the way this fictional colony survived (and almost “thrived” in their own way), it was a bit of a soap opera with a too-neat ending for me.
    I would recommend it with that (big) caveat for the general info I gleaned from it.

  6. This one sounds tough. Our bookclub read a book, Moloka’i by Alan Brennert, last year about a leprosy colony in Hawii. I found this one fascinating and an pretty easy read.

  7. Thanks for the great comments!

    Nicole, I just wanted to mention that I read Moloka’i last year and loved it- I still think about little Rachel Kalama! In fact that was one reason I wanted to read The Leper Compound, but alas, the books are nothing alike. TLC isn’t really about the leper colony much at all.

    Cheryl, yes you are absolutely right.. it is definitely more literary fiction than historical fiction.

  8. I just had this one arrive in the mail from Literary Ventures Fund as well and have been looking forward to it. The premise sounds really good. After your review, I’m curious to see if I like it or not.

  9. Natasha, I’ll be watching for your review.

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