The Book of Memory by Petina Gappah

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Reviewed by Terence Jagger

This was an interesting read, and there have been times when it would have been an act of bravery to read it in Zimbabwe, where it is set, let alone to write it; but those days are past, and there is criticism and comment aplenty in modern Zimbabwe, though it is so far having little effect on Mugabe and Zanu-PF’s corrupt and incompetent government. But this book, although it is set in Zimbabwe, is far from being overtly political, although there is certainly lots of politics implicit in many of its scenes; but it is also about memory, and false memories, about family and affection; and about betrayal and remorse. All in all, it is a well written, interesting book, which intrigued me throughout and which has the smell of southern Africa on every page – and yet it slightly left me wanting more resolution, more explanation, more ability to make judgements … but it may well be that a key point of the book is how dangerous it is to make those judgements.

Memory is a woman who, it is immediately apparent, is in jail, having been found guilty of murdering Lloyd, a man with whom she had lived (on what terms is not at all clear) since early childhood; the police investigation and trial were clearly farcically incompetent and corrupt – though you are never really sure of the truth of key events – and Memory is now awaiting execution in the notorious Chikurubi prison, deprived of basic rights as well as toilet paper, toothpaste and everything else. But this no murder mystery (you never do find out who did kill Lloyd), nor is there any happy ending – on the final page, Memory is still in prison, with no progress in her case. This is because Petina Gappah has elected to look at the story through Memory’s eyes alone, looking back from a single point in time over her whole life in a long letter of explanation, intended to support her appeal, to an American well-wisher.

So Memory is a prisoner, allegedly a murderess, possibly in the eyes of the police the murderer of her lover. But there is more, much more. Lloyd is white and wealthy, she is from a very poor local family touched by trauma, barbaric traditional beliefs and practices, and savage grief; there is something else too, which seeps gently into the story. There is something odd about Memory; she is clearly a girl apart growing up, kept in the house when others play, picked on at school (though very bright), with a loving father but a very difficult and strained relationship with her mother; she is pathologically afraid of water. Is she ill? Is she wicked – or mad? No, the springing point of all her stories is ‘the condition that makes me black but not black, white but not white. That is how it was, and I will tell you about it.’ She is black, but albino – almost a witch in some eyes.

The descriptions of her early childhood, and her life in the prison – which are the fullest, saddest and even funniest parts – are clearly the best strands in the story; her life with the white, wealthy Lloyd (an academic who is translating Homer into Shona) is disturbingly ambiguous but also more lightly sketched, and the long years away, after her great betrayal, education overseas, and prodigal return, are really too thin and a bit unconvincing. The root of Lloyd’s being is exposed in a sudden, soap opera moment, and the murder and arrest are only sketched in. But here are some striking moments from the best narratives:

We were poor without knowing it. There was nothing ennobling or life-affirming about our poverty. It just was. And you could say that we did not know just how poor we were because everyone else around us was the same. We accepted the simple order of our lives in the ignorance that other, richer lives were possible.

[She picks up a chameleon while weeding the prison farm, which changes colour to match her skin, her uniform] ‘How can you say it is only a chameleon?’ This was Beulah. ‘Are you some kind of witch that you play with such things?’ … Chameleons are portents of evil, witchcraft and black magic. The news spread throughout the prison and made me safe from all bullying.

The magistrates here hand out stiffer sentences for stealing cows than for raping children.

Gappah observes childhood and the sad, self-obsessed and ignorant warders well, and she gets in some good jabs at the politicians and their supporters, and at the right wing whites, angry at the loss of the old Zimbabwe they ruled, friends of Lloyd’s but not of his liberal mind about the world. The novel is well worth reading, and is very moving, but the crux – that she has crucially and tragically misunderstood how she ever came to leave her family and live with him – is not given the passion or the conviction it deserves. And we are left with a lot of ambiguity, which I respected, but there is a niggle in my mind that wants to know more.

At the end of the book, Memory is still in prison, for a crime we believe she didn’t commit. She may leave to be hanged, she may be pardoned or exonerated, we do not know. Zimbabwe too is innocent and in prison; when it will leave, and whether it will be in a funeral procession or a flight of freedom, no one yet knows that either.

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Terence Jagger has visited Zimbabwe several times in connection with international development efforts for that sad but beautiful country, and admires both the welcome and the humour of the people; he plans to go back as soon as he can!

Petina Gappah, The Book of Memory (Faber & Faber: London 2015). ISBN 978-0-571-29684-2, 270pp, hardback.

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