In Petina Gappah’s debut novel The Book of Memory, Chikurubi inmate Memory recounts her story in a series of notebooks. Memory has been convicted of the murder of her adoptive father, Lloyd, and her lawyer advises her to write down all that she can remember in order to put together a solid appeal. The story that emerges weaves between past and present, from Memory’s childhood home in the impoverished township Mufakose, to her years in Chikurubi prison; from her time at Oxford, to her years spent living in Lloyd’s Umwinsidale mansion, Summer Madness.
As Memory attempts to piece together her past she reflects on the elusive nature of memory, how sometimes “you come to understand the things you cannot possibly have known; they make sense and you rewrite the memory to make it coherent”. On one hand Memory gives a vibrant account of the taste and smell and feel of a sweet, juicy, stolen mango, while on the other she cannot remember what her sister looks like. Due to the abstract nature of memory, and remembering, many questions arise throughout the novel – how did Memory really come to live with Lloyd? How did Lloyd die? What caused a rift between them? For the most part these questions kept me captivated and I read on hungrily.
However, the narrative started to peter out towards the end, and Gappah doesn’t give her readers time to make a meaningful connection with Lloyd so that his life with Memory, and his death, to make the kind of impact that it should have. The story would be more compelling and impactful if the relationship between Lloyd and Memory was expanded and explored further.
The novel is filled with instances of introspection and meditation, which gives the story an interesting, modulated pace. Gappah writes vividly, making sure to engage all of the senses, and all of the characters are full of life, though at times can be exaggerated, or forced. The stories of Memory’s childhood and her time in prison are rich and detailed, and full of wit and humour. Despite the cruelty of the prison guards, they bring a dark humour to the novel and their harsh natures allow for the stories of the other inmates to unravel in interesting ways. We read about “baby-dumpers”, abused women, women who have committed crimes due to superstition, prostitutes, and the destitute, who commit crimes of desperation. Their stories weave a colourful tapestry depicting the lives and tribulations of ordinary Zimbabweans.
Gappah vividly portrays a country in turmoil, and Chikurubi prison is the perfect setting for discussions of politics, justice, morality, and the bleak disparity between rich and poor. The Book of Memory is a gripping novel about memory, forgiveness, loss and acceptance.
Image: Author, Petina Gappah
Image Credit: http://randomthingsthroughmyletterbox.blogspot.com/