The Missionary and the Brute by John Kenworthy
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
The opening of this strange, cold tale set in the heart of sweltering Tanzania is a good one. Missionary Jadwin Ross is being pummeled in a creaky interrogation room, accused of a murder he did not commit. There is hardly a better way to open a book, and it hooked me instantly. Ross, as a character, is very clearly defined. Lusty, apathetic at times, and even mean-spirited, Ross is not your garden variety missionary.
He is in charge of a small village in Tanzania, and a flock of American visitors who range from the stereotypical dress-alike married couple, the mother with a problem goth-daughter, and a beautiful guest named Leah. Ross's peers also include a fellow minister, his beautiful bespectacled daughter Imura, and a misogynistic tour guide named Daud.
Imura and Leah are the best defined of the side characters, and both at times objects of Ross's lust. Daud is also well done, a vicious, sharp tongued sulker who becomes a thorn in Ross's side.
In between the day to day goings on of the characters, the story jumps forward to Ross's ordeal in interrogation. The story shines best with all the little details throughout. The Missionary work, Africa, traditions, local colloquialisms, scents, sounds, heat, sweat, smells, all of it shines through from an author who clearly has mastery of his setting and subject. I found it a personal joy to experience this detailed world I'd never previously put much thought to.
Ross himself, however, is a tricky fellow. A man of God, to be sure, and one dedicated to his work. This is outlined with a constant inner monologue, that, to be honest, got old fast for me. The florid quoting of scripture and lofty sentiments muttered over and over, comparing himself to martyrs and to righteous suffering became quite redundant for me to read.
The man of God lapses and quite often, I might add, into another man, an Earthy lusty fellow at that. A disturbing glimpse of his character is shown in a graphic sex scene where the woman in question is degraded to nothing more than a pliable sex toy to satiate Ross's lust.
The center of this novel is sprinkled with mystery and the specter of death. Nevertheless, it did sag somewhat for me. Although I did appreciate the flash-forward format, I still sometimes felt stifled by some of the pacing and befuddled by Ross's increasingly callous nature. I wanted a character to bond with, and Ross remained fiercely resistant to that, no matter how intriguing I found the plot.
A violent, surreal world spills across the pages in the third act however. Bloody, heart pounding, and heartbreaking, with just the right amount of twist, and with no regard at all for expectations, I found myself nodding and smiling at this brilliant final act. A few of the more "infuriating" points I found in the first two acts were actually cleared up for me with the final act and I am so glad to have stuck with it. "The Missionary and the Brute" is an offbeat, uneven thriller but the mastery Mr. Kenworthy has over his setting and the brutal confidence he has in presenting Jadwin Ross to the reader makes this a bizarre, deadly little read.
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