I was sad to read this announcement today that the Guardian First Book Award will be ending after 17 years. Last year had a very strong longlist and the winner Physical by Andrew McMillan was one of my favourite books of 2015. I mention this because Petina Gappah’s first book “An Elegy for Easterly” was a book of short stories that won this prize in 2009. I haven’t yet read this book, but I’ve heard from many that it’s excellent. Now, her second book and first novel “The Book of Memory” is on the Baileys Prize longlist.
This novel has one of the most gripping and startling openings of any book I’ve read for a while. Gappah frames her novel as a letter being written by Mnemosyne or Memory from Chikurubi prison in Zimbabwe to an American journalist in Washington. The two shocking things which Memory immediately divulges are that at the age of 9 she was sold to a white man named Lloyd and, many years later, she was imprisoned after being accused of murdering him. Immediately my mind started making assumptions about both the circumstances surrounding this woman’s life and the politics of Zimbabwe.
Gappah does a very clever thing by twisting the reader’s expectations around and showing over the course of the novel how things are very different from how they first appear. This not only makes this book a suspenseful read, but challenges Western readers’ assumptions about how they read an African story. At one point, the character of Memory directly asks the reporter she’s writing to (but it’s also the author directly asking the reader) “And even you, probably conditioned to believe in the worst that can come out of darkest Africa, are asking yourself whether this really happened.” Like Memory in the course of her discovery for the truth about her family and past, as a reader I “made false assumptions” about the country and people I was reading about. This novel makes a powerful statement about how our memories function and how we can use memories to (sometimes falsely) interpret the world around us.
Memory’s story spills out rather chaotically in the beginning where recollections of the past swirl into others and wash into the deprived circumstances of her present in the women’s prison. This style feels only natural since she has been imprisoned for over two years and hasn’t had anyone sympathetic to talk to other than her lawyer Vernah. Memory is someone who has always stood out because she’s an albino making her “black but not black, white but not white”. This causes some people to assume that she is either cursed or capable of witchcraft. It also makes people uncertain what her race is. At several points she can actually see the shift in behaviour as a stranger approaches her from a distance assuming that she is white and then readjusts their attitude when they realize that she is black. The sense of alienation she feels causes her considerable emotional distress (as well as physical problems when she doesn’t have access to proper lotion and sun protection). However, this also gives her a somewhat objective viewpoint on the people around her because she doesn’t completely fit into either the social understanding of what it means to be black or have access to the privileges of what it means to be white in Zimbabwe.
There are some really heartbreaking scenes as Memory describes the loss of some of her siblings and the brutal treatment she received at the hands of her dangerously unstable mother. She also describes the appalling conditions in the prison and the corrupt security guards who inflict upon the prisoners religious dogma or tedious stories about their domestic woes. Yet, as the novel progresses some of the guards become more nuanced with surprising hidden motives.
As a highly educated person and a keen reader, one of the most difficult things for Memory is not having access to any books while she’s in prison. When reading she “felt less afraid when I thought of all the other people who seemed to have had harder lives than mine. I disappeared completely to occupy the world of whatever book I was reading.” Given all the hardship she endures, it’s not surprising that she takes to reading as both a method of escape and a way to rise above the difficulty of her circumstances. Mixed in with Memory’s recollections of the many challenges she faces there is also a lot of humour such as a faux trial that several of the inmates stage within the prison or how one prisoner frequently fashions her hairstyles (rather unconvincingly) after celebrities.
“The Book of Memory” is such an engaging and skilfully-told novel. It’s both playful and very serious. Gappah paces the story so well posing certain mysteries which are only revealed within time as Memory goes about “laying out the threads that have pulled my life together, to see just where this one connects with that one or crosses with the other”. At the same time, she does something quite radical in subtly making the reader reassess their own knowledge and the assumptions we’re likely to make. It’s an impressive accomplishment.