Forest of the Pygmies, by Isabel Allende
Themes: travel; adventure; Africa; friendship; magic
Synopsis: 17 year old Alex and his close friend Nadia, are taken by Alex’s grandmother, Kate Cold, to Kenya. The purpose of Kate’s trip is to document an elephant-led safari for the National Geographic magazine. However, their plans change when they cross paths with Brother Fernando, a Spanish missionary. Two of Brother Fernando’s missionary friends have gone missing in the remote tribal village of Ngoube. This inhospitable village is ruled by three wicked characters, King Kosongo, Commandant Mbembele and the sorcerer Sombe, who rule over the tribal people by fear. King Kosongo also enslaves the Pygmies from the surrounding forest.
When Alex and Nadia arrive in Ngoube, they realise their purpose does not only involve looking for the lost missionaries. They choose also to try and defeat the three evil rulers and free the Pygmies from slavery. This demands bravery, courage and a handful of African magic.
My thoughts: I picked up this book having heard much praise for Isabel Allende’s writing. I had previously read Kingdom of the Golden Dragon, one of the sequels to Forest of the Pygmies, which I confess I never reached the end of. When reading Forest of the Pygmies I realised why this might have been. Whilst the plot is exciting and adventurous, I often found my concentration wandering. I soon realised this was probably because there is a great deal of telling the story rather than showing the story.
For example, the majority of the dialogue begins with direct speech for the first few sentences. But very soon, the text then changes to a summarised version of how the conversation continued. The reader is told what happened rather than shown the action. I found this lost my attention. I would rather have watched the actual conversation unfolding rather than being told about it afterwards in retrospect.
Similarly there are other scenes where the reader is told about the action once it has already happened rather than shown it ‘on stage’. The result of so much ‘telling’ is that the pace seems quite slow at times and it is easy for attention to lag.
The story, I think, is mainly told from Alexander’s point of view. My uncertainty is because there are various occasions where the point of view changes to one of the other characters or even becomes an omniscient point of view. Again, this could be another reason why my attention strayed at times.
The characters that Isabel Allende creates are one of the strengths of the book. Alexander and Nadia are both very different to each other and yet have a very close bond. Their growing relationship is probably best appreciated if the reader has followed them in the previous two books. Kate Cold, Alexander’s grandmother, is a feisty, strong character. Despite being beyond retirement age, she takes no nonsense from anyone, even King Kosongo. Strengthened by her daily dose of vodka, she battles through the inhospitable jungle with no complaints.
My favourite character was Angie Ninderera, the voluptuous pilot from Botswana. She is full of colour and life and like Kate, has no fear of anyone, even when King Kosongo takes her as a wife to add to his growing harem.
Unlike my earlier attempt with Kingdom of the Golden Dragon, I did manage to reach the end of Forest of the Pygmies and I am glad I did. Despite the overuse of ‘telling’ and the varying points of view, it was worth persevering with. I would encourage other readers (11+) to persevere too to enjoy the colourful characters and the exciting plot line full of adventure and magic.