Paula Nangle’s The Leper Compound seemed like a books with incredible potential, but it ended up being pretty disappointing in the end. The writing style, very loose and dreamlike, didn’t lend itself well to the material, which was harsh and unforgiving. Maybe Nangle did that on purpose, aiming for contrast, but it ended up muddled and confusing instead.
The novel focuses on Colleen, a white girl growing up in the late 20th century in Rhodesia. Her mother died when she was seven, and Colleen herself nearly died of malaria, which left her bedridden for a year. Meanwhile, her little sister has schizophrenia (and gets sent away), and Colleen’s father refuses to succumb to the reality of the politics surrounding his coffee farm. We watch Colleen grow up, go away to school, become a nurse, get married, etc. The chapters all stand apart as little stories, but they jump around a lot. Colleen’s isolation remains the biggest theme — she doesn’t fit in with the African kids, she doesn’t fit in with the racist whites, she’s not really a missionary, etc. When she goes away to school, she comes back to a nearly unrecognizable community, as freedom fighters have taken over and war rages around her.
The author seems to assume that the reader understands a lot more than I did — both the timeline of Colleen’s life (which, like I said, bounces around — there’s no real sense of how much time has passed when each new chapter starts), as well as the political situation she’s living in. I, for one, know next to nothing about Rhodesia, and the series of militant uprisings that led to its splitting into multiple countries. I thought this novel might be a good way to learn about those things, but Nangle seemed unwilling to explain just about anything.