The Book of Memory by Petina Gappah

The Book of Memory is the story of Memory, a Zimbabwean woman attempting to write herself into innocence from her incarceration in Chikurubi prison, Harare, where she awaits the death sentence. She is writing to an American journalist who will share her account with her lawyer in the hope that mitigating circumstances can be found and used to free her.

Memory’s case is particularly interesting because she was condemned for killing a white man, a man from whom she would inherit everything, a man who she believes bought her as a child.

And then there is Memory’s appearance.

Memory is no ordinary Zimbabwean: Memory is an albino, plagued by painful sunburn and cracked skin when she lived in the township as a child, feared by others who presume her cursed or full of witchcraft; a person whose skin confuses people when they see her at a distance; someone who doesn’t quite fit in.

The novel is particularly interested in the outcast and makes intriguing comparisons between traditional Zimbabwean beliefs and those of Greek mythology. Revengeful spirits live large throughout the book refusing to be appeased and there is no doubt a thought-provoking thesis to be written about the way in which these beliefs work through the development of the characters, plot and the novel’s attitude to politics.

There is a lot to compel the reader through The Book of Memory. The story of Memory’s life is dramatic in literary reference and plot twists (of which I’m purposefully avoiding discussion). Perhaps the only issue I would have with the novel is that the delay in fulfilling referenced plot points occasionally feels too marked, too constructed, detracting from the supposedly first person natural and flowing account of Memory herself. This is, however, a rather minor quibble though perhaps the reason why I’m never fully emotionally immersed in Memory’s story (surprisingly for me, there were no tears) despite the clever rendering of the many different characters.

Regardless of this tiny reservation, The Book of Memory is a challenging, interesting novel that follows one woman’s navigation of Zimbabwean independence with ambition and compassion. I thoroughly enjoyed it.

Next week I’m reading Three Strong Women by Marie NDiaye.