Publisher: Bellevue Literary Press
Distributed by: Consortium/Perseus Books & Sales
Distributed by: Ingram Book Group
ISBN-13: 978-1-934137-06-2
Price: $14.95
Trade Paperback: 192 pages
Publication Date: January 2008
Trim Size: 5 x 8

The Leper Compound
Paula Nangle

A stunning debut novel by a psychiatric nurse in which illness unleashes the uncanny and essential of human identity, featuring an American missionary's daughter who grows into womanhood amid the social and political conflict of 1980s southern Africa

The setting of this extraordinary novel is Rhodesia in the throes of the conflict that will give birth to Zimbabwe, a transition that Nangle witnessed when she lived there. Colleen, motherless from the age of seven, is left alone with her father, an American ex pat coffee farmer, and her younger sister, whose mental illness removes her from the family. The Leper Compound is the record of Colleen's passage into adulthood across an Africa in transformation. Extending beyond the usual parameters of a "coming of age" story, it is, simultaneously, about the forging of personal and national identity.

Paula Nangle was raised by missionaries in the US and southern Africa and now lives in Benton Harbor, Michigan, where she works as a psychiatric nurse. This is her first novel.


"The Leper Compound succeeds remarkably in giving a sense of how, during the last years of white rule in southern Africa, the daily experience of ordinary people was interfused with the larger historical drama."

—J.M. Coetzee, 2003 Nobel Laureate for Literature and author of Slow Man

Paula Nangle's debut novel, "The Leper Compound," is a beautiful and complex work. Set during the final years of the Second Chimurenga—the guerrilla uprising that ended white-minority rule in Rhodesia in 1979 and gave rise to modern Zimbabwe—it is about much more than just the war. Indeed, the conflict occurs out of sight, the spit and crackle of violence leaping from the surface of the narrative before falling from view. This is, of course, Nangle's intention, reflecting the willful denial of white Rhodesians, as well as her protagonist's dreamlike disconnection from the world. We meet Colleen, the daughter of a white farmer, as a child in the feverish throes of malaria... Indeed, the early pages of the novel hum with a hallucinogenic quality, of visions flickering in corners, at a distance from the world outside... Nangle underscores both the passage of time and Colleen's indifference to momentous political and social change with a single sentence: "'Zimbabwe' doesn't exactly roll off my tongue yet." There is no resolution in "The Leper Compound," no moment of self-realization for Colleen, no reconciliation with her past, her lost homeland or the Africa of the present or future. It is a ruthlessly honest study of an individual—a decent person—who hears, but does not hear, who sees, but does not see, in order to get by. [click here to read the full review]

The Los Angeles Times, January 21, 2008

Paula Nangle's "The Leper Compound" interweaves the study of a historic moment with a lovely depiction of one African girl's development as affected by that moment. Like the main characters of most bildungsromans, Colleen grows up in turbulent times, the period from Rhodesian Prime Minister Ian Smith's Unilateral Declaration of Independence in 1965 through the eventual attainment of independence in 1980, and the nation's change of name to Zimbabwe. The novel opens with Colleen's guilt at forgetting to take a day's dose of quinine; she then comes down with malaria, an illness that sends her—along with the novel about her—into a long series of episodic dream... Nangle beautifully describes the way acute self-awareness can distort one's perception, fusing daily consciousness with a near-dream state. In her waking life, Colleen watches herself with a consciousness similar to that of light sleep, where one senses, but can never be sure, that this might just be a dream. Sometimes the reader must wonder which is which, though Nangle rarely lets the strangeness of Colleen's mind become too opaque... Nangle's prose allows for varied interpretations; if anything, the story asks, rather than tells, what kind of person Colleen is... Like the children in Nadine Gordimer's "The Lying Days" and J.M. Coetzee's "Boyhood," who grow up in British colonies in Africa, Colleen is a symbol for the liminal zone between two eras. What makes her unique is her extreme sensitivity, which enables her to forge strong connections with those who might ostracize her even as she feels the exclusion from their world. [click here to read the full review]

San Francisco Chronicle, January 29, 2008

"Zimbabwe and South Africa at the last half of the 20th century provide the complex backdrop for Nangle's melancholy debut. Structured as a series of snapshots in the life of Colleen, daughter of a white farmer and a former missionary, the book looks at the harrowing transitions from white to black rule. As a child, Colleen survives malaria in then-Rhodesia, which leaves her with a lifelong legacy of hallucinatory dreams that may or may not have a real-world basis. She also learns to cope with her younger sister's schizophrenia. The guerrilla warfare of the 1970s creates a tacit barrier between Colleen and her many Shona friends (the Shona people make up a majority in Zimbabwe). Their reluctance to tell Colleen the truth about their political activities causes her to inadvertently betray them. Over time—and with a few harrowing adventures of her own as she studies nursing in South Africa, marries and gives birth to a son—the number of black Africans in Colleen's life dwindles. She is herded into a purely white world, despite the end of apartheid. While a simple coming of age tale on the surface, Nangle's poetic and often heartbreaking story exposes racism's insidious effect on all concerned. (Jan.)"

—Review in Publishers Weekly

For me, the sign of a great book is that it not only entertains, but it also challenges and teaches me. This in turn changes me just a bit. The Leper Compound does this beautifully. This is a fictional story of Colleen, a white girl, growing up in South Africa in the eighties during severe political unrest. Her father is a coffee farmer who has been widowed and left with two young daughters. We learn Colleen's mother died when she was seven and her younger sister is slowly losing her mind.

The story progresses from the time right after the mother dies through Colleen's teenage years, her time as a nurse, her marriage, and the birth of her son. This is a short book with just 192 pages, but there is an abundance of wealth in those pages, from the gorgeous writing, to the painful coming of age story of Colleen.

The author of the book lived in Africa with her missionary parents growing up, and is currently a psychiatric nurse. My hope is that she can retire and spend all her time writing, because she truly has a gift and I will be first in line to read more.

—Tracy Kokemuller,

"Paula Nangle writes prose that in its elegant yet raw intensity reminds me of the poetry of Sylvia Plath. The Leper Compound will impress itself on the mind and remain with the reader long after the book has been closed.

—Stuart Dybek, 2007 MacArthur Fellow and author of I Sailed with Magellan

"Nangle looks at the suffering body with a concentration that yields almost hallucinatory detail. Like Gordimer, she must witness; like Coetzee, she bows to the discipline of her own helplessness. What she writes is a stunning realism like no one else's, explosively quiet, painful, and beautiful."

—Jaimy Gordon, author of Bogeywoman

"A difficult adolescence and young womanhood are lived out during Rhodesia's violent transition into contemporary Zimbabwe, in Michigan author Nangle's compelling first novel.

The central character, Colleen, through whose viewpoint we observe these changes, grows up on the coffee farm owned by her widowed father, a former American missionary who stayed on in Nyadzi after his wife's death from malaria. The novel's first half offers lyrical episodic portrayals of Colleen's protective yet combative relationship with her mentally disturbed younger sister Sarah (who "hears voices," and is eventually sent to a "special school") and stoical devotion to her hardworking father, juxtaposed with gratifying relationships with a number of native (Shona) caregivers and comrades. The more memorable of the latter include her family's household servant Mapipi (first to realize the seriousness of Sarah's condition), mission nurse Julia Chonongera (in whose footsteps Colleen will follow) and Colleen's de facto first love Heresekwe, a passionate Shona activist in the making. What Colleen learns from them all—and from the lepers who, to her unjaundiced eye, "look like lions"—clashes with the policies of a brutal colonial government and sets her on a path of resistance and commitment that is compressed, perhaps rather too tightly, into tense later chapters that detail her experiences as a community health nurse, her marriage to a multiracial musician and her embattled motherhood. Nangle brings Colleen's story to a moving conclusion, after she has survived grave threats to her new life and made peace with the world of her youth, as her father's passing coincides with national and cultural change.

A fine debut novel, and a welcome glimpse of a troubled world which one hopes Nangle will explore in fuller detail in future work."

Kirkus Reviews, December 2007