Wednesday 2 September 2015

The Book of Memory by Petina Gappah

The story you have asked me to tell begins not with the ignominious ugliness of Lloyd's death but on a long-ago day in April when the sun seared my blistered face and I was nine years old and my father and mother sold me to a strange man. I say my father and my mother, but really it was just my mother.
Memory, the narrator of The Book of Memory, is an albino woman languishing in Chikurubi Maximum Security Prison in Harare, Zimbabwe, where she has been convicted of murder. 
As part of her appeal her lawyer insists that she write down what happened as she remembers it. 
The death penalty is a mandatory sentence for murder, and Memory is, both literally and metaphorically, writing for her life. As her story unfolds, Memory reveals that she has been tried and convicted for the murder of Lloyd Hendricks, her adopted father. But who was Lloyd Hendricks? 
Why does Memory feel no remorse for his death? And did everything happen exactly as she remembers?
Moving between the townships of the poor and the suburbs of the rich, and between the past and the present, Memory weaves a compelling tale of love, obsession, the relentlessness of fate and the treachery of memory.

The Book of Memory by Petina Gappah is published by Faber & Faber in hardback and ebook on 3 September 2015.

There are some advantages in a rainy Bank Holiday Monday, and one of them for me was that I was able to sit down and read The Book of Memory in almost one sitting. This is a debut novel that is both stunning and original. It is a book that will transport the reader to places unimagined, yet it is also a very challenging story, one that at times is difficult to follow. Despite this, The Book of Memory is so beautifully told and captures the heart. Memory's voice is strong, she is mysterious and at times unfathomable, yet she is a character whose voice lingers long after the last page is turned.

Memory is recounting her story in the hope that her death sentence will be overturned. She has been found guilty of the murder of her adopted father Lloyd Hendricks and her solicitor has asked her to recount what happened in the lead up to Lloyd's death.

Memory does not just tell the facts of the events leading to the killing. She looks back at her early life with her family, before she was nine years old, before her parents sold her to Lloyd. Memory has always been unusual. She's an albino, she's also the first woman for many years who has been sentenced to death. Memory has tried to hide for most of her life, and yet now, she is the centre of attention, both inside the prison and outside too.

Memory's story is not always easy to follow, her narrative skips back and forth as she remembers various things. Her recollections of her siblings, of her overpowering mother and her loving father are mixed up with the story of  her transition to Lloyd's home; a sharp contrast to the poverty she has known before.

Petina Gappah's vivid and imaginative writing brings Zimbabwe to life. Even though I struggled with the names of both the inhabitants and the places, this country becomes a character within its own right. The contrast between rich and poor, the tastes, the smells, the sights, the colour, and the memories. For Memory is not just the name of the lead character, it is also the theme of this novel. Memories easily recounted, and those that are hidden, through fear and because they are painful.

The character Memory can be difficult to fathom, she appears to have no remorse that Lloyd is dead, despite the fact that through him, she was introduced to books and to music, and to riches. She traveled, she was educated at the best university and although she keenly observes those around her, she doesn't seem to want to look deeper into her own mind.

The Book of Memory is not a long novel at just under 300 pages, but it is a satisfying read with a complex lead character. Petina Gappah is a natural storyteller, her book is evocative and poignant and deserves much success.

My thanks to Sophie from Faber & Faber who sent my copy for review.

Petina Gappah is a Zimbabwean writer with law degrees from Cambridge, Graz University and the University of Zimbabwe. 

Her debut story collection, An Elegy for Easterly, won the Guardian First Book Prize in 2009.


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