Memory, the narrator in Petina Gappah’s debut novel, The Book of Memory, is, despite her dire situation, a calm chronicler, not only of her situation but also of the malevolent maelstrom that swirled around after Rhodesia’s transitioned into Zimbabwe. An albino woman, Memory is in a notorious prison in Harare, facing a death sentence after being convicted of the murder of Lloyd, the wealthy white man to whom she believes her parents had sold her, and with whom she grew up.
It is through journals that she is writing as part of her appeal against her conviction, that Memory, Mnemosyne, slowly pieces together the interwoven scraps of scraps of her life. It’s a journey in which her albinism has made her always the outsider, amongst blacks as well as whites. But it is the eventual arrival of her sister who she has not seen since going to live with Lloyd that is the eventual catalyst. She brings with her the letter written by her father before his death that finally reveals the truth about her parents and helps her understand the frailty of her recollections and summary of her life.
Gappah slowly moves the story to and fro, in time and location, from the ramshackle home where Memory spent her first years with her family, to Lloyd’s luxurious home and elite schools and university and eventually inside the walls of the prison. She paints a vivid picture of the brutality, prejudice, fear and corruption that marked the transition from white to black rule in the country and the millions just trying to survive within it. There are some lovely touches – the subtle triggers of memory, the smell of a mango, the sound of certain music, the pages of a book read long ago, that build into a powerful mosaic. All this meant I could forgive her the occasional slightly preachy tone (and the steady biblical references) and the fact that there are times when she moves on too quickly.
There is some exciting writing making its way out of Africa and into out bookstores at the moment. Gappah’s The Book of Memory, published by Faber&Faber is a welcome addition. Gappah, a Zimbabwean, won the Guardian First Book Award for her collection of stories An Elergy for Easterly.