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Nondumiso Tshabangu Reviews The Book of Memory by Petina Gappah

HomegoingStar Rating: ★★★★☆ 4/5
The Book of Memory
Petina Gappah
Faber & Faber, September 2015
Online Price: R302.00

The Book of Memory is the second work of fiction by Petina Gappah, a work that underscores why she won the Guardian First Book Award for her first, the short story collection An Elegy for Easterly. This lawyer-turned-author is not a one-hit-wonder and will remain a bright spot within the African fiction spectrum for many years to come.

Even the big mansions hold their secret miseries. They hold more of them because there is more room for them.

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 encourages her to write down everything that happened as she recalls it. When 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?

As you read through Memory’s story, you come to realise that she is well-read and clearly has had a private education (she mentions works from Dr Seuss to Dan Brown). How does such an articulate woman end up on death row? Moving between the townships and the suburbs, and past and present, Gappah weaves a compelling tale of love, obsession, the relentlessness of fate, and the treachery of memory.

Gappah peels back layers of racial prejudice as Memory, a black woman, stands accused of murdering a wealthy white man; and as an albino, faces daily prejudice in her own community. Gender also plays a role: most of Memory’s fellow female prisoners are in jail because of their relationships with men. Gappah smoothly weaves these real-life issues into her novel without short-changing her main character of attention.

Art is Memory’s main mnemonic as she writes her account. Photographs, books, music and popular culture generate stories that take Memory in different directions: photos of family tucked in books; songs of mourning reaching throughout the prison; books, television shows and films that have been landmarks in her life. Gappah’s storytelling aids as a testament to the suppleness of how people can recall their past. It is all in the detail and how it felt, smelt and how it looked; Gappah makes it so.

Gappah also draws you into her first language, Shona, including snippets of dialogue without translation. What better way to express yourself and to make a point than in your own mother tongue? She pulls it off it elegantly – you find yourself understanding without resorting to Google Translate.

Review by Nondumiso Tshabangu, editor of Africa’s Lit, the African literature themed newsletter from Exclusive Books

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