The Book of Memory
“When we talk of fate, when we talk of a fatalistic vision of human experience, what we mean is that the most important forces that shape human lives are out of human control.”
― Petina Gappah, The Book of Memory
In the Book of Memory we are met by an albino woman named Memory who is awaiting her sentence on death row in Chikurubi prison in Zimbabwe for the murder of her stepfather Lloyd.
Life in prison gives Memory time to think on her past, and as part of her appeal, she writes down her memories of events leading up to the murder. In the opening of the novel, Memory shares how her parents sell her to a white man. She writes” I see them now as I saw them on the day we first met Lloyd. They are in the clothes that they wore to church on Sundays and when we went to town for window-shopping, because if you are going to hand your daughter over to a perfect stranger, you need to look your best.” But is what she remembers and what happened on that day quite the same?
Petina Gappah, a Zimbabwean lawyer and writer, was awarded the McKitterick Prize from the Society of Authors (2015) and was longlisted for the Bailey’s Women’s Prize for Fiction as well as shortlisted for the Prix Femina étranger for The Book of Memory, initially published in 2015 by Faber and Faber Limited.
In her novel, Gappah tackles questions around perception and identity through Memory’s recollections of her life. Her memories are told in a non-linear narrative with smells, tastes and sounds bringing the story to life. Memory continuously sees herself through the eyes of others who look at her as an object of curiosity due to her skin colour. It is a sharply written story about trauma and secrets that go against assumptions and stereotypes.
The opportunities Memory’s new life of privilege offers in the white world with Lloyd are out of reach for her in her life with her parents in the township, Mufakose, where she is born. Memory is, in a sense a victim of circumstance, but she also benefits from the situations she is unwillingly put in, which causes an inner conflict in her. As she remembers her childhood home, she also describes her blistered face, through Lloyd she has access to a dermatologist and learns how to care for her skin. She is also given an education and falls in love with the world of books. There is a passage in the book where Memory compares her two homes. The privileged world is quiet and peaceful, whereas the township is vividly described with different sounds competing for attention and in comparison, chaotic. She remembers, with some sadness and longing, the songs and games played by the children on the street.
Gappah skillfully investigates what happens when a story is told so many times it becomes memory whether it was one to begin with or not. Through Memory she shows us how the stories that we tell our selves gives us our place in the world. It is not until at the end of Memory’s journey she entirely comes into her own and discovers that she has both gratitude and empathy for Lloyd and gains a deeper understanding of her circumstance.