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.

Review and Giveaway: The Fires by Alan Cheuse

The Fires by Alan Cheuse of NPR Radio fame is an intense reading experience comprised of two novellas in which people set fire to something precious.  The stories have elements in common- love and memories, misery and grief, loss and transformation- but the characters are very different. 

In the first story, The Fires, Gina Morgan travels to Uzbekistan, where her husband Paul has perished in a car accident on a business trip after falling asleep at the wheel.  Procedures for cremation, her husband’s wish, are elaborate and difficult in the Soviet Union, but she is determined and enlists the help of the American embassy.  She is able to make it happen only through a Hindu ceremony, a surreal experience in which she, the grieving widow, is the one to light the funeral pyre, and lights up her skirt in the process.  Later she marvels at her feelings of freedom. 

In the second story, The Exorcism, Tom Swanson travels to an exclusive New England college to pick up his daughter Ceely after she has been expelled from school for setting fire to a piano.  Ceely’s mother, a famous American jazz pianist, has recently died of a drug overdose, and her daughter is filled with anger, rage, grief.   You could feel both the daughter and the father struggling to be understood.  In this story there were long sentences that became almost stream of consciousness and dreamlike.  For instance, in part of the story, Tom is driving Ceely home from college.  While she sleeps he is thinking of all the things he’d like to tell her.  Here he thinks back on why he and Ceely’s mother separated when their daughter was 3: 

“Sure, she’d be home every day she was playing in town, but she was sleeping a lot of the time we were awake, so even when she was with us she was apart, so we didn’t so much as actually separate as kind of erode, like a beach washed away after one heavy tide after another.” 

There were comic moments here, too.  The father is constantly forgiving others in an effort to cleanse his soul.  He forgives his father, his wife, his ex wife, his daughter, the dean at his daughter’s school; for various things, like being jealous, or being angry, or for just being human.  He even forgives the couple in the hotel room next to his for their wild sexcapades that kept him awake half the night, but the next day he calls their room repeatedly in retaliation.  So I guess he forgave but could not forget!

These stories are extremely well crafted and excellently told.  I would love to hear them in Cheuse’s smooth radio voice.  They are compelling, tragic, yet funny at times. I enjoyed the symbolism of fire and words like sacrifice, destruction, purification kept coming to mind while I was reading.  

Published by the Santa Fe Writer’s Project, I received The Fires from the Literary Ventures Fund.  For a chance to win my copy, leave a comment here by June 6th.