Wednesday, 11 January 2017

The Book Of Memory by Petina Gappah

The Book Of Memory by Petina Gappah
First published in the UK by Faber And Faber in 2015.

One of my WorldReads from Zimbabwe

How I got this book:
My OH bought the ebook from Amazon

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Where to buy this book:

The Book Depository : from £7.99 (PB)
Wordery : from £6.15 (PB)
Waterstones : from £7.99 (PB)
Amazon : from £1.38 (used PB)
Prices and availability may have changed since this post was written

The story you have asked me to tell begins not with the ignominious ugliness of Lloyd's death but on a long-ago day in April when the sun seared my blistered face and I was nine years old and my father and mother sold me to a strange man. I say my father and my mother, but really it was just my mother.
Memory, the narrator of The Book of Memory, is an albino woman languishing in Chikurubi Maximum Security Prison in Harare, Zimbabwe, where she has been convicted of murder. As part of her appeal her lawyer insists that she write down what happened as she remembers it. The death penalty is a mandatory sentence for murder, and Memory is, both literally and metaphorically, writing for her life. As her story unfolds, Memory reveals that she has been tried and convicted for the murder of Lloyd Hendricks, her adopted father. But who was Lloyd Hendricks? Why does Memory feel no remorse for his death? And did everything happen exactly as she remembers?
Moving between the townships of the poor and the suburbs of the rich, and between the past and the present, Memory weaves a compelling tale of love, obsession, the relentlessness of fate and the treachery of memory.

Having seen Amnesty International appeals recently to help albino people at risk of being murdered for their 'magical' body parts, I had it in mind that The Book Of Memory would be a litany of violence and abuse. It isn't. Instead we read an albino woman's own tale of the events in her life that led her to be imprisoned for murder. Memory is both the woman's name and the theme of her story.

I was particularly moved by Memory's melancholy recollections of her early childhood. As an albino she was excluded from street games by her skin's reaction to the sun and also by her peers' reaction to her difference. She knows all the children's songs not because she sang them herself, but because she could hear them sung day after day from her window. Gappah paints a striking picture of isolation. Memory herself is a fascinating woman to spend time with and I liked other characters including Synodia with her fabulous hair! It was interesting that Memory's family are less defined as people - less well remembered - than the vibrant women Memory now sees everyday, and our perception of Lloyd changes as Memory grows up and understands more about him and his hidden difference.

Memory is ostensibly writing her reminiscences to an American journalist, Melinda, who may be able to help her quash her sentence. I didn't like this device and thought that some of the direct comments to Melinda jarred with the otherwise sensitive prose. I did appreciate however the notion that our memories cannot always be trusted. We might see something so apparently clearly that it could not possibly be mistaken, yet still be unaware of the real truth. Gappah presents a number of scenarios in which memories are unreliable both on a personal level for our imprisoned narrator and as part of the national history of Zimbabwe. I loved her descriptions of Zimbabwean life and culture. The deprivation and degradation of the prison contrasts starkly with the richness of the nation outside its walls. For a novel set in prison, The Book Of Memory isn't overwhelmingly depressing so don't let that put you off reading it. Overall I would say it is a measured, thoughtful book that does finish with a note of hope.

Search Lit Flits for more:
Books by Petina Gappah / Contemporary fiction / Books from Zimbabwe


  1. It's good to know beforehand that this book is not as depressing as it sounds. Had I not read your review, I would have probably steered clear. I like the message, the cultural knowledge that this book imparts.

    Great review, as always!

    1. I hope you get to read this one. It's an interesting portrait of a Zimbabwean life