Tamar Myers is the author of two extensive mystery series set in the US, but in her newest tale, she brings her personal history and knowledge of the Belgian Congo to the forefront. Born and raised there, this is the third in her Belgian Congo series, following The Witch Doctor’s Wife (2009) and The Headhunter’s Daughter (2011). Myers parents were missionaries to a headhunting tribe who used human skulls for drinking cups. Her family was the first white one to live peacefully with the tribe. These rich and searing experiences all come to the forefront in this compelling novel.
Myers’ deft hand mingles superstitions, rites, and evil omens with an historical look at changing life in colonial Africa and the social changes of that time as colonial rule neared its end, as she moves her story moves back and forth between two eras.
In the Belgian Congo of 1927, villages thrive in an era filled with witch doctors, headhunters and cannibalism and wild names given to children, often based on their physical attributes, such as Protruding Navel. After the chief of a Bapende village slays a man-eating leopard that has terrorized his village, he returns to find his favorite wife had given birth to twins. The superstition around twins means an evil spirit has entered one of the infants–but how to tell which one? The village witch doctor would have both boys left to die after torturing them, but the chief manages to convince the tribe that the spirit of one of the twins has stolen the dead leopard’s spots, so both twins are spared, only to have one molested by a white man. When this is revealed, a young priest must take part with the tribe in eating the offender.
Fast forward decades later to 1958, and these same twins are now known as Jonathan Pimple and Chigger Mite, and become the central figures in a secret that will shock the residents of Belle Vue, a scenic town whose inhabitants are separated by much more than the bridge crossing the Kasai River that separates whites and natives.
All the clashes of culture, religion, language, superstition, and discrimination rear up in the various factions trying live together. There’s the voluptuous Colette Cabochon, born in the Congo to Belgian parents and living the life of other wealthy whites. She is bored and unfulfilled, residing with her alcoholic, abusive husband in a villa that sprawls the top of the hills. There is the Protestant missionary, Amanda Brown, whose growing attraction to the police chief, Capt. Pierre Jardin brings out the worst in Colette. Amanda and a few of the other character’s appear in the first novels in the series.
Amanda’s pregnant servant Cripple is one of the most interesting characters, a wise, clever woman married to a failed witch doctor. There are also Roman Catholic priests, determined to save what they see as heathen souls in sometimes unorthodox ways, and one who arrives and is thrown into the rich mix is a childhood friend of Colette, a Monsignor Clemente.
Despite the growing resistance to decades of oppression by the indigenous people, tired of being used as personal servants or as workers in the diamond mine, when a murder occurs, this wild tale becomes, after all, a mystery to be solved.
This is a highly unorthodox novel that paints a vivid picture of a society far removed from what readers are used to and what they can imagine. The lush, tropical feel of the place is reverberates off the page; the characters are drawn with wit and a heavy dose of acumen relating to human nature.
Mary Alice Monroe, author of Last Light over Carolina, says of this book: “Only an author with an intimate knowledge of the Congo–its people, landscape, and culture–could write … with such confidence and authority.” Myers experiences of living in Africa, where she grew up eating elephant, hippopotamus and monkey, make this book glow in a vivid and compelling manner that will delight fans of historical fiction who appreciate a mystery laced with a hint of romance and dry humor.
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