The Book of Memory by Petina Gappah


Having previously penned a short story collection, The Book of Memory is Zimbabwean author Petina Gappah’s first novel. Telling the story of a woman’s fight for life, this is a thoroughly enjoyable, compelling read that had me hooked from the opening paragraph:

‘The story that you have asked me to tell you does not begin with the pitiful ugliness of Lloyd’s death. It begins on a long-ago day in August when the sun seared my blistered face and I was nine years old and my mother and father sold me to a strange man’

From this I was intrigued by the questions raised – Who was Lloyd and how did he die? What caused her parents to give her away? These questions and more are answered over the course of the novel. It is narrated by Memory, a woman who is wrongly imprisoned for the murder of Lloyd and awaiting the death penalty. As part of her appeal Memory recalls her version of events concerning Lloyd’s death in a notebook given to her by an American journalist. In addition to this we see Memory’s life from the beginning as she recalls her childhood, her parents and siblings.

‘It was when my mother made vetkoeks the following morning and let me eat all of them that I realised…’

The first part of the novel covering Memory’s early childhood takes place on Mharapara Street where the reader gets a real sense of the life in the community as our narrator grows up. Over the course of the novel more details start to seep through as we build up a picture of Memory’s family life. Gradually we start to realise that along with her struggle to fit into her prison life she is something of an outcast in her life outside of the prison. In particular, as an albino her appearance sets her apart from neighbours and her own siblings. I really enjoyed building up this family story, there are harrowing moments within but there is also humour and heart.

The second part is about life after Mharapara Street. We see a nine-year old Memory embark on a new life at a grand house called ‘Summer Madness’ With this new home comes an education, a new family, and new acquaintances. We glimpse her teenage years and all the changes that brings and how this impacts later events.

‘Synodia took great pleasure in telling me that the guards cut out all the court news and any reports of crime, so that – her words – ‘You lot will not get any ideas if you ever get out’’

The novel alternates between memories of childhood life and life in the present day in the prison. We are introduced to an interesting cast of fellow prisoners with grisly stories of their own to tell and there is also the unpleasant reality of prison life. Newspapers and books are scarcely provided and have most of the news cut out by the guards. This adds to Memory’s isolation and hints at major political and economical events taking place outside the prison walls.

‘…just broken people, trying to heal, stumbling in darkness…’

The mystery surrounding the death that led to Memory’s incarceration makes The Book of Memory a gripping read. I liked the way that the reveal was gradual and well paced and there was the sense that Memory was coming to a realisation as the reader was. This is a compelling tale of a woman’s fight for life, and justice. It is a gripping family story of love and loss and the hope for freedom.

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