Review: The Book of Memory by Petina Gappah
Corrupt Zimbabwe is laid bare in a sensual debut novel set in a prison
The Book of Memory
Two years into a death row sentence in a Zimbabwean prison for the murder of a white man, Mnemosyne writes down an account of her extraordinary life for a foreign journalist. Piecing together her complicated past does not come easy: “Sometimes you come to understand the things you cannot possibly have known; they make sense and you rewrite the memory to make it coherent.”
Mnemosyne’s writings form Zimbabwean author Petina Gappah’s debut novel The Book of Memory. An evocative and powerful rendering of a country mired in corruption and caught between tradition and modernity, the novel explores themes of loss, memory and forgiveness with a most unusual narrator who believes, above all, in the power of language to restore.
A fragmented narrative with myriad strains captivates for the most part. Mnemosyne, or Memory, is an albino black woman who was sold by her parents to Lloyd, at the age of nine. Looming large in her memory are the spectres of mother figures. Both her own unstable mother, who dressed up in her Sunday best before trading her daughter, and mother country, the Rhodesia of Mnemosyne’s childhood grown up to become Zimbabwe.
From her position as prisoner with nothing to lose, Mnemosyne is an engaging voice. Educated and well read, her anger at her situation and the injustices she witnesses daily is lightened by a cynical sense of humour.
Chikurubi prison is a formidable backdrop from which to tell her story. Grim conditions prevail: prisoners must obey the whims of guards to avoid beatings and solitary confinement. Gappah brings colour to the bleak world with her vivid characterisation of various prisoners and scenes that see the inmates put on mock courtroom dramas. For all their viciousness, there is humour too in the guards, particularly the mean-spirited, Bible-brandishing Synodia with her vocal tic that condemns anything beyond her limited understanding.
Ever present in this prison atmosphere however is the corruption of Zimbabwean society, a world where “the magistrates hand out stiffer sentences for stealing cows than for raping children”. Gappah, a lawyer who studied at Cambridge, is well placed to make these observations. Similar preoccupations informed her debut story collection, An Elegy for Easterly, which won the Guardian First Book Prize in 2009.
Chikurubi is a place of “baby dumpers”, prostitutes, wronged women, women who killed out of superstition or ancient beliefs. It is a place where inmates like Mnemosyne can end up on death row without any forensic evidence forming part of the case against them. It is also a place where prisoners live in hope of a presidential pardon, something which happened in reality in 2014 when Robert Mugabe pardoned all but two of 197 female inmates of the Harare prison.
The narrator is well prepared for prison after a childhood of confinement. Unable to take the sun and bullied by her peers, young Mnemosyne was incarcerated at home with an irascible mother who showed her no affection: “Mine was not an illness, but a curse sent to her by her ancestors to punish her.”
Myth and sorcery in Zimbabwean culture is a central part of the story. Mnemosyne has been terrified of the underwater spirit njuzu all her life, a legacy from her mother that she has yet to properly grasp.
The novel spins around various mysteries: why did no relatives ever come to visit the family in Mufakose, why did Mnemosyne’s loving father agree to send her away, what did Lloyd and his mansion in Unwinsidale have to gain, what drove his adopted daughter to kill him decades later, did she really kill him or is it just another wrong in a long line of wrongs?
As it seeks to tie all the disparate strains together, the book’s impact lessens significantly in the final quarter. Too little of Mnemosyne’s life with Lloyd, her relationships with the white Rhodesians, or with social climbing artist Zenzo, whose character is introduced far too late, is depicted for the reader to truly connect with this part of the story.
In this section, characters are mentioned, often memorably – “She sounds, he said, ‘like a seal being machine-gunned’” – and then forgotten. Back stories on white supremacists add historical context but not to the narrative itself. Even Lloyd’s secret lacks punch, the reader having spent so little time in his company.
Where the book excels is in its vivid evocation of Zimbabwe, both Mnemosyne’s childhood memories of the country and her experience of its penal system.
Gappah is a gifted, sensual writer who uses everything from county and western music to “the high whine of a million mosquitoes”, to the taste of a stolen mango to draw the reader into her world.
A book of memories indeed.