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. Her mother has already succumbed, and her father marvels at Colleen's survival. " 'You weren't even there,' he would say. 'Mostly you were gone, you didn't even see me. I thought you were dead.' " Indeed, the early pages of the novel hum with a hallucinogenic quality, of visions flickering in corners, at a distance from the world outside.
Colleen becomes obsessed with the illness of Miss Maenga, a black teacher from a nearby village who has cancer. Tended by the same nurse, Colleen imagines that their illnesses are related. After Miss Maenga's death, Colleen spends afternoons by her grave, feeling that what she's doing is somehow wrong. She is "violating something, being there, a thief continuing to steal what was African, parts of Africa, and make it hers. Understanding was only a new way to mark territory."