The Leper Compound (Bellevue Literary Press, 2008) by Paula Nangle is a coming-of-age story set against a backdrop of violence, illness, and political unrest during the last days of white rule in southern African countries. The book opens with young Colleen, having forgotten to take her quinine pill, contracting malaria and proceeds to chronicle the various illnesses of those around her—a teacher who is dying of cancer, her younger sister Sarah’s mental illness, the men and women she encounters at a leper compound, and, eventually, her own child, who is born with a serious heart defect. Colleen, who is white, witnesses, alongside these illnesses, acts of violence during the revolt against apartheid. She struggles to gauge her place and to find connection with the native Shona people, though she is summarily told, first by a nurse who gently chides her for saying “us,” and second, years later, by her African boyfriend who is involved in political uprisings and keeps secrets from Colleen, that she will never be included in their group. She sympathizes with the revolution but is never able to fully grasp its significance and is unwilling to whole-heartedly adopt the cause. Instead, she, in the end, finds the connection she’s been searching for as a nurse, caring for the ill, and married to a white man, completely immersed in the white segment of the population.
There is much to admire in this debut novel. Paula Nangle, who grew up in southern Africa, the daughter of white missionaries, writes deftly and subtly about a character who is unwilling to face the situation around her. Nangle masterfully conveys a sort of nagging terror, a character who witnesses a great deal, but is unable to comprehend it, to fear it straight-on. Likewise, Colleen possess a vague sort of guilt for being a member of the ruling race but she never quite gives in to understanding the injustice of apartheid. There is considerable skill in how Nangle portrays a character that is not necessarily unreliable, but whose perspective is instead stunted; the deeper meanings of the events swirl around her thoughts and impressions and rise up from them. In the end, there is no dramatic epiphany, no great change in Colleen; she simply fades into the white culture having never completed assimilated all that she has witnessed. Throughout, Nangle’s prose is clear, and she resists every urge towards sentimentality. It is a tightly written, thoroughly imagined, masterfully depicted story.