Tuesday, February 09, 2010

Book review: The Witch Doctor's Wife, by Tamar Myers

I've been doing a lot of reading lately, but most of it has been in preparation for author interviews (to appear here later this spring) or my NoveList column for March. So I thought I'd post a review I wrote for Historical Novels Review's February issue, which is just out.

Tamar Myers, Avon A, 2009, $13.99, pb, 307pp, 9780061727832

Myers, known for her light contemporary mysteries, switches gears for this character-centered historical thriller based on her childhood experiences in the Belgian Congo. It’s 1958, and colonial rulers are extracting as much wealth as possible from the land before turning it over to the native people, who anxiously await independence. The powerful Consortium controls the diamond trade, prompting some workers to conceal their lucrative finds at considerable risk to themselves. In the small tribal village of Belle Vue, sitting atop the Kasai River gorge, the whites and Africans live apart, intercultural disputes occasionally stirring within and between both groups.

When young South Carolina native Amanda Brown arrives in the Congo to run a missionary guesthouse, she is enraptured by the landscape, but her intensive cultural training doesn’t prepare her for its people’s peculiar names and odd customs. Although she already has a housekeeper, she can’t resist offering employment to the clever first wife of Their Death, the local witch doctor. Their Death, already contending with two squabbling spouses and his second job as a yardman – he isn’t an especially successful witch doctor – seizes his opportunity when he discovers an enormous uncut gem in his infant son’s possession. Thus begins an upward-moving chain of greed, misplaced trust, and betrayal, all for a diamond hardly anyone has even seen.

The author’s informative asides on geography, fauna, and Bantu culture begin each chapter. Multiple viewpoints enhance the experience, as does the characters’ melodic, picturesque speech. Their dry wit counterbalances the many dark moments. It would have been easy to make Amanda merely a straitlaced counterpart for the more colorful Congolese, but Myers endows her with warmth, intelligent curiosity, a good sense of humor, and a difficult past. Adventure-seeking readers shouldn’t miss this memorable tale, a vibrant evocation of an enchanting yet dangerous place.

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