Book review: The Book of Memory by Petina Gappah

The Book of Memory by Petina Gappah
The Book of Memory by Petina Gappah
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African albino girl Memory didn’t win first prize in the lottery of life…

Born into a poor township in 1970s Harare in Zimbabwe, Memory’s childhood was blighted by the ‘ghastly whiteness’ of her skin. ‘Black but not black, white but not white,’ she was bullied and ridiculed at school, and sold by her parents to a wealthy white man when she was aged just nine.

But now she’s a woman and her dreadful fate seems little changed. Languishing in Chikurubi Maximum Security Prison in Harare, she has been convicted of murdering the man who took her in and fostered her… and the sentence is death.

Memory’s journey from impoverished township to a mansion in the rich northern suburbs of Harare, and on to one of the city’s most notorious jails, unfolds with heartbreaking poignancy in the remarkable new novel from Zimbabwean author Petina Gappah.

Gappah, who has law degrees from Cambridge, Graz University and the University of Zimbabwe, won the Guardian First Book Prize in 2009 with her debut story collection, An Elegy for Easterly.

And the follow-up does not disappoint. A tale about family, passion, learning, love and the unreliability of memory, The Book of Memory is a powerful and resonant reminder that for some, life is a grinding battle from day one.

It’s over two years since Memory was convicted of the murder of Lloyd Hendricks, her adoptive father, and given the mandatory death penalty. Her only chance of survival is to get the sentence commuted and as part of her appeal, her lawyer insists that she write down what happened as she remembers it.

Memory is ‘writing in the shadow of the gallows’ and as her story is revealed, we learn that on a sunny day in April, when the sun seared her blistered face and she was just nine years old, her father and mother ‘sold her to a strange man.’

Even before that devastating day, Memory’s life had been tough, her family packed together in their home ‘like sardines in a tin,’ suffering the taunts of other children and the pain of her sister’s death, wanting to be like other people, trying to be ‘invisible’ and yearning to belong.

When her father handed her over to Lloyd Hendricks ‘without a single backward glance,’ a new life began for her, one that included the solace of books and education.

But as we travel back and forth through the years with Memory, question start to surface. Who was Lloyd Hendricks, why does Memory feel no remorse for his death and did everything happen exactly as she remembers?

Using her lawyer’s skills, her author’s eye for vivid detail and the sheer beauty of her prose, Gappah weaves between past and present in a gripping and moving story which speaks loudly of the loneliness of ‘the outsider.’

The stakes are high, and the suspense electric, as Memory gambles all on her Book of Memory, hoping that somehow it will allow a window into the blurred corners of her past and provide the key to her escape from the hangman’s noose.

Nothing is certain for Memory, particularly her memories, but hope survives.

Utterly compelling…

(Faber, hardback, £14.99)