The Book of Memory by Petina Gappah

9th Sep 2015

Petina Gappah’s 2009 collection of short stories, An Elegy for Easterly, won the Guardian First Book Award. The Book of Memory is her first novel.

Set in a Zimbabwean prison, the novel is narrated by Memory, or Mnemosyne, the only woman on death row in the country. Memory writes her experience in a notebook given to her by an American journalist who is interested in her story. The reason for her being on death row slowly becomes apparent.

Memory introduces the world to the cast of vivid characters in the prison; as she is the only woman on death row, she is with other female prison members on D Ward. Verity, Jimmy and Beulah are Memory’s friends; they are in for ‘defrauding the International Olympic Committee’, ‘biting off a man’s penis’ and for trying to ‘bite the ear off a woman who called her a witch’, respectively.

But the bulk of the story concerns Memory’s past. Her life begins in a village with her family.  Memory loves her father and sisters but has a strained relationship with her mother. When she turns nine, after her sister Mobhi dies, Memory goes to live with a white man named Lloyd, thinking her parents have sold her to him. Lloyd is the man that Memory is convicted of killing.

As Memory grows and learns, she sees what she couldn’t see as a child. The novel discusses how we are unable to understand things as children and as teenagers which, with hindsight, we can see with more sensitivity and nuance.

Memory is an albino, and has been called a ‘murungudunhu’ for much of her life, meaning that she is ‘a black woman who is imbued not with the whiteness of murungu, of privilege, but of dunhu, of ridicule and fakery, a ghastly whiteness.’ Her skin blisters in the heat of the village, but with Lloyd’s expensive creams it flourishes.

Moreover, because Lloyd is rich, Memory gets a western education. The intersection between western and African ideas is still very apparent. In the novel Zimbabwe is still heavily suffering from the after effects of colonialism, represented by the most expensive education still being in English.

The effects of the changing Zimbabwean society is seen across the novel. Towards the end there is hope that the prison amnesty will result in Memory’s possible pardon. However, the plot largely concerns the past. The Book of Memory feels like Memory’s confession.

Memory is carrying around her own guilt regarding a personal issue, which also speaks to wider concerns in her society. Her relationship with Lloyd is an interesting one and is, at its core, probably based on Memory’s misremembering.

Gappah is often funny – prison dinners are described as containing so much oil ‘that you almost fear that America will invade.’ These asides lighten what is incredibly depressing subject matter.

The voices of African female prisoners are rarely heard. What makes this novel even more interesting is that the protagonist has a disorder which sees her allied with the ‘other’, white people.

The novel can feel heavy-handed at times. Memory’s book is eponymously named so it feels unnecessary for another character to point out the biblical reference in having a book of memory. Also, there are problematic conflations when a gay character dies by auto asphyxiation and this is almost presented as an extension of his being gay.

However, The Book of Memory discusses big, important issues and ideas, specifically those of fate and guilt, in an intimate, personal way. This is a book which deserves a wide audience.