The Book of Memory by Petina Gappah

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The Book of Memory

Memory is the name of an albino woman who is in a Zimbabwean jail, awaiting the death sentence, for the murder of her guardian, Lloyd Hendricks. Her parents sold her to this white man when she was 9 years old and she never saw them again.

The title has two meanings, in that it is the book Memory wrote about her life and it also explores memory itself; its fallibility, its haziness, how it can be misconstrued. Memory is writing to an American woman, Melinda Carter, who writes columns in a magazine. Her focus is to expose miscarriages of justice so Memory’s lawyer, who is appealing against her sentence, introduced Melinda to Memory in the hope that a sympathetic article in a prestigious magazine would help her cause. This device enables the writer to explain village life, Shona culture and Zimbabwean politics as it would be explained to a foreigner.

Her story shifts between village life, life with her birth family, prison life and life with Lloyd in a largely white farming community. The vibrant essence of village life as well as the squalor is brought to life. Memory is ostracised, feared and teased because of her albinism. She is further excluded from normal life by having to avoid the sun. Her life is lived narrowly between home, school, church and hospital. By contrast, life at Summer Madness, the homestead in which she lives with Lloyd is tranquil and calm; it has a swimming pool, a library, a treehouse, dogs and horses. She is bewildered by her surroundings and longs for home. She also has no idea why she has been removed from her family. She remembers her mother’s ‘white dress with big red poppies all over it’. She remembers her two siblings that died, the one shortly before she was handed over to Lloyd and she misses her sister, Joyi. She suffers from terrible nightmares.

Memory’s life in prison is brilliantly described; the conditions in Chikurubi Maximum Security Prison are appalling as is the manner in which the inmates are treated by the wardens. The corruption is terrible as the wardens take supplies meant for the inmates home; even the sanitary pads. Despite this, the conversations held between wardens and inmates are very funny. The warden, Synodia, makes so little sense that Memory refers to her statements, as Synodic Utterances. This tone of witty cynicism permeates much of Memory’s writings on the deprivations of prison life. Some of the inmates too are quite eccentric and their attitudes to their crimes give more than an inkling about their lives outside prison.

The story of how she was sold and how Lloyd died are the two things, the reader is dying to know. This is eked out in between flashbacks to early childhood, flashbacks to life with Lloyd and prison life. At times the flashbacks to village life were a little repetitive but it certainly has the effect of increasing the tension. When the truth is revealed, Memory has to re-consider everything she previously thought about her life.

One of the major themes in this novel is the effect that superstition and cultural beliefs have on people’s lives. The customary practice of ngozi in Shona culture is meant to appease the spirit of vengeance that follows a violent death. It raises the question of what is to be done when traditional cultural beliefs and practices place limits on human rights. Furthermore, the superstitions around albinism are highlighted; a taboo that must be exposed as such. Another theme is the effect on a person of being removed from their culture but never quite being accepted by the culture in which they are placed; reminiscent of Nervous Conditions by Tsitsi Dangarembga.

It may seem, on the face of it, that the novel is tackling too many pressing issues and may run the risk of doing too much; however, this is not the case. The different strands knit together naturally and show the domino effect of how decisions taken before one is even born can have dire consequences on one’s own life. The writing is exemplary and the suspense as the story unfolds ensures the reader’s interest does not flag.

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3 responses »

  1. Nice review Penny. I have had my eye on this but it just came out here in Canada earlier this year and it is still in hard cover. In the meantime I do have her collection of short stories that I have heard so much good about and, when I learn to expand time or read faster I hope to get to it!

    Like

  2. Pingback: Penny De Vries’ experience of ARTiculate Africa Book and Art affair 2016

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