11 January 2007

Book Review: Forest of the Pygmies by Isabel Allende

The Forest of the Pygmies I didn’t read the blurb on this until after I got it home from the library, when I discovered that it is, in fact, the third book of a trilogy - the first two volumes of which I haven’t read. Oops. Fortunately it functioned well as a stand-alone book.

Travel writer Kate Cold has just finished an African safari - with grandson Alex and young protégée Nadia in tow - when her party is flagged down by a Spanish missionary. Brother Fernando wants help to search for two of his fellows, who have disappeared from the jungle village of Ngoubé. As well as being remote, the area is under the control of the tyrannical trinity of King Kosongo, Commandant Mbembelé, and the sorcerer Sombé. But Kate is quickly convinced of what a coup the story would be, so together with beer-swilling, chain-smoking pilot Angie and snake-phobic photographer Joel, they head into the jungle.

Things take a bad turn when a rough landing leaves the plane irreparably damaged, and a worse when when the party is imprisoned in Ngoubé. Their one hope is for the two teenagers to rouse the oppressed Bantu and enslaved Pygmies to fight. Not quite as difficult as it sounds, given that Nadia can morph into an eagle and Alex into a jaguar; plus Nadia can become invisible, talk to animals, and has a pet pickpocketing monkey. And not forgetting Alex’s amulet of fossilised dragon dung. The monkey’s retrieval of an amulet stolen from the Pygmies is a start, but they will do nothing without the support of the spirits, which only Alex and Nadia are unafraid enough to venture near.

At first I found the idea of morphing into the embodiment of one’s totemic animal spirit - actually, just the idea of having a totemic animal spirit - somewhat jarring. I put this down to unfamiliarity with and lack of exposure to such beliefs, and I soon got accustomed to it - almost. But I still had to raise an incredulous eyebrow during the showdown with Sombé when Nadia, in the form of an eagle, brought to the village not just gorillas and elephants but a Himalayan ghost and his troop of well-armed yetis. After that I was relieved to see that Kate and Joel, at least, retained their scepticism to the end.

For about eighteen hours after finishing this book, I thought of it as a quite enjoyable way to pass the time, in spite of the touches of the absurd. Then I realised that I hadn’t become attached to any of the characters, and the whole book had the same air of distant unreality as a fairytale.

Rating: B-

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Header image shows detail of A Young Girl Reading by Jean-Honoré Fragonard, c. 1776