• From the Observer: Review of 'The Book of Memory'

    Review of The Book of Memory by Petina Gappah (published in The Observer, August 2015)

    The Book of Memory

    By Petina Gappah

    How do we know if what we remember is really the whole truth and nothing but the truth? In her first novel since winning the 2009 Guardian First Book Award for a short story collection, Petina Gappah powerfully probes the tricksy nature of memory.

    The narrator is Memory or Mnemosyne, an albino woman consigned to Chikurubi prison in Harare, Zimbabwe, convicted of murdering a wealthy white man, Lloyd, her adopted father. She is the first woman in more than twenty years to be sentenced to death, and as part of her appeal she begins writing down her memories of what happened - her notebooks form the novel, which engagingly examines the connections between memory and language (the novel's epigraph is from Nabokov's Speak, Memory). Gappah is also a lawyer, her knowledge brought to bear in this story about the struggle for justice.

    "I spent much of my life trying to be invisible", describes Memory, documenting the physical and emotional pains of being an outsider: how her albino skin blistered in the sun; how she was brutally bullied; how she wanted to crawl out of her own skin, "to disappear, to melt and only observe". Gappah brilliantly exposes the gulf between rich and poor, for when Memory was nine years old her parents sold her to Lloyd and she moved from an impoverished township, Mufakose, to a grand house, learning of those living in a "cocoon of privilege". Books became Memory’s salvation: "Crippled by fear and longing for home, I was saved by books”, she describes. "I discovered books that became as necessary to me as breathing”. Through books she could finally disappear: "I disappeared completely to occupy the world of whatever book I was reading".

    The non-linear narrative mirrors the movement of memory, looping back and forth through time, swerving over sore points and later returning to prod the painful moments (the novel abounds with wounds: "In my wild moments of loneliness, I thought of driving to Mufakose. But the wound, though partially healed, still throbbed enough for me to want to leave it undisturbed"). As Proust had his madeleine, so our narrator discovers many mnemonics. Seeing a chameleon incites a "wave of homesickness", reawakening memories of her township. Fragments of memory force a revaluation of personal history.

    Song weaves sensously throughout the soundscape of this story, as it explores the link between music and memory. Memories of "the scratchy sound of a record player" evoke Memory’s mother who loved "mournful music…particularly the songs that were also stories”. The narrator records in her notebooks how she fell in love with music, praying for a tambourine of her own. She recalls the jazz records of Lloyd's grandmother, and Lloyd’s "cassette tapes of Fleetwood Mac and Depeche Mode". Her prison days are meanwhile filled with "songs of sorrow" when a prisoner dies, and punctured by protest songs.

    Music and books offered Memory a way of transcending an often painful upbringing in which violence was such an “everyday reality” that she even recalls her mother throwing a record at her. There are "moments of snatched joy” in a narrative plaiting brutality and tenderness, dark and light, heartache and humour as skilfully as Memory’s mother once plaited her daughter’s hair.

    The novel is startlingly vivid as Memory recalls the taste of a stolen mango, the suffocating smell of camphor, strelitzia flowers blazing with colour. Most poignant of all is what she cannot remember, such as the pain of realising that she can no longer picture her dead sister's face in her "mind's eye”. It's through tiny details that Gappah grapples with the grand themes of fate and freewill, love and loss, the collision of tradition and modernity, the impact of politics on the personal. Yet withholding details also keeps the reader hooked, creating thriller-like suspense.

    There are sections that could have been more fully developed such as Memory falling in love for the first time, and occasional inconsistencies in voice are jarring, but these glitches aside, the reader is soon again swept up in the story's considerable momentum.

    This moving novel about memory unfolds into one about forgiveness: "I did not care about forgiving because forgiving meant actively remembering. I did not want to forgive because I did not want to remember”, explains Memory. But instead of burying trauma, the remembrance of things past is crucial to moving on, and proves ameliorative, for when Memory finally gazes into the heart of her hurt, memories of love also surface.

    "I am writing to keep myself alive", acknowledges Memory, as she fills notebooks with a story that sears itself into the mind and will not soon be forgotten. What Memory misses most when imprisoned is "the books, the books, the glorious books” - Gappah has here created a glorious book, too, a passionate paean to the powers of language.

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