My first taste of Petina Gappah’s fiction came via her short story collection, An Elegy for Easterly. Though short stories are not my favourite reading material, I enjoyed her writing so much I immediately bought her debut novel The Book of Memory. I wish I could say I read it immediately but in fact it’s taken me more than six years this intriguing tale of memory, loss and forgiveness.
The narrator of The Book of Memory is an albino black woman imprisoned in Zimbabwe for killing her adopted father Lloyd, a wealthy white man. As she awaits the outcome of her appeal against execution, Mnemosyne (aka Memory) begins to write the story of her life. Her notebooks are intended as source material for an American journalist who’s made a career from exposing miscarriages of justice.
Saved by Books
Memory’s version of the past begins with the day when, aged nine, she was sold by her parents to Lloyd. She moved from an impoverished black township to Lloyd’s grand house “Summer Madness” and a life of privilege. It was an unsettling experience for the small child. “I was saved by books,” she says. “I discovered books that became as necessary to me as breathing. The worlds I travelled to allowed me to escape the pain of being uprooted …”
The affection Mnemosyne comes to feel for Lloyd is broken apart by her love for the flamboyant artist Zenzo. It will trigger events that culminate in the discovery of Lloyd’s body in his swimming pool, and Mnemosyne’s subsequent arrest.
Petina Gappah’s narrative explores the tricky nature of memory. Mnemosyne’s recollections of her childhood are a jumble of half remembered events and things that escape her understanding.
They appear often just as a fragment, an image or a sound that fades and then returns in a different form. She can recall the books she devoured, her mother’s love of mournful music and Lloyd’s jazz tapes. She remembers too, with great bitterness, the many times she was viewed with suspicion, even hostility, because of the colour of her skin. “I spent much of my life trying to be invisible,” she says.
Sometimes these memories are true but her recollection of the defining moment of her life — her “sale” to Lloyd — turns out to be flawed.
Sometimes you come to understand the things you cannot possibly have known; they make sense and you rewrite the memory to make it coherent.
Glimmers of Humour
Between her recollections, we experience life in Chikurubi maximum security prison. It’s a grim place where the women’s treatment depends on the fickle mood of their guards. Food is in short supply as is water but beatings and solitary confinement are plentiful, doled out as punishment for the smallest of offences.
The bleakness is fortunately offset with humour. Prisoners and guards might not sound like fertile ground for comedy but it’s evident in scenes where the inmates hold mock court appearances, relying on flawed knowledge of legal procedures to rehearse their testimonies.
‘If they ask you if you are sorry for your crime, just tell them that you are the only breadwinner in the family.’
‘You can also say that your sister or brother passed nd left you their children to look after or you an say the whole thing is based on hersy.’
‘Do you mean hearsay?’ asked Verity.
Jimmy nodded. ‘that’s right heresy. But honestly, I won’t lie to you. The best thing you can do for yourself is to just say that you have really come to know Jesus.’
For vividness of character however, it would be hard to surpass the guard Synodia, a mean-minded, Bible- basher who is quick to condemn everything that she doesn’t understand. Her standard response is to dismiss every suggestion, and every request with what she must imagine sounds cultured English. So we’re treated to some delights like “pwlibrary”, “pweducation” and — my favourite — “Pwozambique.”
The Book of Memory is a beguiling and richly-textured novel. It’s not without flaws — the final quarter of the novel feels rushed. We don’t get enough detail about Mnemosyne’s relationship with Zenzo to fully understand the impact when it falls apart. Nor are the events leading up to Lloyd’s death fully explained.
But where it shines is in its depiction of life in Zimbabwe.
This is a country of contrasts; between rich and poor and between modern attitudes and traditional beliefs and sorcery. A country where corruption runs rife, notions of justice are distorted (“the magistrates hand out stiffer sentences for stealing cows than for raping children”.) and where people can be condemned to death on the flimsiest of evidence.
The Book of Memory by Petina Gappah: Footnotes
Published in 2015
Petina Gappah is a Zimbabwean writer with law degrees from Cambridge, Graz University (Austria) , and the University of Zimbabwe.
She started writing fiction in 2006, publishing her first book An Elergy for Easterly three years later. Her first novel, The Book of Memory was published by Faber in 2015 . In 2016, she was named African Literary Person of the Year by Brittle Paper.
Her other published works are: Rotten Row, a short story collection published by Faber in 2016, that was chosen as a “Book of the Day” by The Guardian, and the historical novel Out of Darkness, Shining Light published in 2019.
She writes in English, though she also draws on Shona, her first language.
Petina Gappah lives in Geneva where she works as legal counsel in an international organisation that provides legal aid on international trade law to developing countries. She also holds a fellowship with the DAAD Artists-in-Berlin Programme in Berlin.
The Book of Memory is book number 9 from my #20booksofsummer2022 list. I’m counting it as book 12 in my #22in22 personal project where I am trying to read 22 books from my TBR that I acquired before 2022.