The Book of Memory, published in 2015, was added to my reading pile through a book club I have newly joined. Zimbabwean author, Petina Gappah, writes in short, simple, unsentimental prose throughout this, her second book. This style coupled with a harsh story line makes for a punchy, compelling read.
Briefly, the narrative revolves around a woman called Memory who is in prison awaiting execution for the murder of her adoptive father, Lloyd. At the instigation of a visiting American journalist, Memory recalls her past from early childhood to the present, all the while regaling readers with accounts of the interesting characters that people the women’s prison in Chikurubi alongside her. Memory’s memory of her childhood is distant and inaccurate, as memories are, but becomes clearer as the story moves to the present. Some of the ladies in my book club saw the emergent revelations at the end too rushed. But perhaps this trait was more a deliberate merging of past and present, than of an author growing tired.
The most important aspect of The Book of Memory for me was how it highlighted the prejudices rife in (in this case, Zimbabwean) society. Memory herself is a Black woman born with albinism. From birth her melanin-deficient condition incurs suspicion and rejection. Lloyd, the man who, as Memory recalls, “bought” her, is a gay White man who, likewise, suffers at the hand of society. Just about everyone and everything in the book is subject to Gappah’s scrutiny – from the stupidity of the uneducated guards, to the colonial and post-colonial politics, religion (including Christianity, ancestor worship and fatalism), the flawed justice system, Memory’s own selfishness, and gender inequalities. Whilst Gappah (or Memory’s) most disparaging remarks are reserved for the prison guards, her tone is non-judgmental, leaving it up to the reader to draw his/her own conclusions.
It is interesting to note that Memory is able to see things the way she does thanks to the “Western” education serendipitously bestowed upon her. I found this aspect of the book a little disingenuous. Despite this, The Book of Memory raises some important issues, is very well written, and made for some stimulating discussion at the book club meeting.
Petina Gappah has also written An Elegy for Easterly and Rotten Row.