Petina Gappah’s debut novel tells the story of Memory, an albino woman in a Zimbabwe prison, having been convicted of murder. Sentenced to the death penalty, she writes to an American reporter about her case and her life, and this narrative forms the novel.
I was initially attracted to this book because I want to read more African literature and that feeling has only increased after reading this. Gappah crafts an intriguing mystery as Memory presents her side of the story; even in doing so, the character questions the extent to which she remembers things accurately. It would be unfair to call her an unreliable narrator, but she’s certainly a narrator without full possession of the facts. Much of Memory’s story takes place during her childhood with her parents and sisters, and later with Lloyd, the white man to whom she believes her parents sold her and with whose murder she is accused; inevitably, her recall of events some twenty years ago can be questioned. What cannot be questioned is the effectiveness of Gappah’s storytelling and characterisation; Memory is a fascinating, intelligent and witty creation and I would happily have read a book twice as long with her as the protagonist.
There’s much about The Book of Memory that is quite heartbreaking, but it’s not a depressing novel. Memory’s childhood is afflicted by more than one tragedy and, even when adopted by Lloyd and living in greater luxury, her life still isn’t perfect. Her descriptions of Chikurubi prison are absorbing and vibrant, with a fascinating cast of characters, both Memory’s fellow prisoners and the guards. Memory is isolated in many ways in the novel; firstly as a result of her albino skin, but also as the only woman in the prison on death row. It’s impossible not to sympathise with her, although the narrative is remarkably free of self-pity, in spite of the injustices she has suffered.
I was particularly fascinated with the political backdrop to The Book of Memory; I previously had only the most basic understanding of the transition from white minority government to the rule of Mugabe in Zimbabwe in 1980, but this book taught me a great deal about that period and made me want to learn more. Due to her imprisonment, Memory’s account of the political tumult outside is peripheral but historical events still play a part in the narrative. The fact of Memory being albino is equally interesting, and different to anything else I’ve read.
The Book of Memory is one of the best books I’ve read this year; it’s not new, having first been published in 2015, but I felt compelled to write a review in the hope that someone who hasn’t read it will pick up a copy. It’s a really extraordinary book.