3 April 2016

Review #386: The Book of Memory by Petina Gappah

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

“When everything goes to hell, the people who stand by you without flinching -- they are your family.”

----Jim Butcher

Petina Gappah, a Zimbabwean author, has penned a deeply moving literary fiction, The Book of Memory that narrates the life story of a Zimbabwean convict on a death row charged for murdering her adoptive father, who was once sold to this man by her own parents and how she evolved into a different person while living with her new family and how easily she could forget her own family and how her happiness get destroyed because of her adoptive father. This is her story, mostly written from her early memories in childhood to teenage hood to an adult to figure out what the lawyers missed in the prosecution of her adoptive father's murder.


The story you have asked me to tell begins not with the ignominious ugliness of Lloyd's death but on a long-ago day in April when the sun seared my blistered face and I was nine years old and my father and mother sold me to a strange man. I say my father and my mother, but really it was just my mother.

Memory, the narrator of The Book of 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 insists that she write down what happened as she remembers it. The death penalty is a mandatory sentence for murder, and Memory is, both literally and metaphorically, writing for her life. As 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? Moving between the townships of the poor and the suburbs of the rich, and between the past and the present, Memory weaves a compelling tale of love, obsession, the relentlessness of fate and the treachery of memory.

Memory is a convict serving her time, as she is on a death row, in Chikurubi Maximum Security Prison in Harare. Her lawyer has asked her to pen her story starting from her childhood to the day when her adoptive father was found murdered in his home.Thus begins her tale which is a constant shift from the present time, her life as a convict and her life among others, the prison guards, the struggling and monotonous routine, her limited visitors and all, to the past when she was born in a family with two siblings and her parents in Mufakose and how one day her happiness turns upside down, when her father sells her to a white man named, Lloyd Hendricks, who was a professor and had a big house and how from then on her life drastically changed from being poor to being someone with a lot of means. But what exactly happens between Lloyd and Memory that lets their growing bond of trust turn into ashes?

The story is beautifully written and I devoured each and every word of this skilled and talented author. Her eloquent writing style with time lapses and emotions make it one of an evocative read and a delightful reading experience for all. The narrative of Memory is first person POV which is free-flowing and highly expressive that no doubt makes the pace a bit slow, but also lets the readers look deeply and strikingly into the scenes. The story is engrossing enough to keep the readers glued and yearning for truth till the very last page.

The author has captured the backdrop of Zimbabwean landscape vividly with in-depth details about the country's shifting politics, culture, linguistics, society, in-differences, the streets, the food, the fashion and everything and it certainly feels like a magic portal where the readers can travel to Zimbabwe through the author's words. I was instantly transported to Harare, inside the prison cell, and on the dusty streets of this place. And the author has flawlessly arrested the routine of a female prisoner, the tortures and the harassment they undergo from the prison guards.

The characters in this story are highly well-developed, especially the main character, Memory, whose back story throws light to her constantly evolving demeanor, and how she honestly pens her every mistake and every right decision. I liked her character, not because of her honesty, but because of her laid back attitude even though she is on the death row. Her painful and sad past engulfed me with its intensity and my heart cried out for her. The character of Lloyd is also well-structured and the way the author unfolds him is quite brilliant. The rest of the characters are also quite interesting enough to remember them even after the end of the story.

Overall, this is a compelling novel set in Zimbabwe which is not only thought provoking but also leaves the readers with a feeling of contempt after reading this book.

Verdict: A true gem for literary fiction lovers.

Courtesy: Thanks to the author, Petina Gappah, for giving me an opportunity to read and review her novel. 

Author Info:
Petina Gappah is a Zimbabwean writer with law degrees from Cambridge, Graz University, and the University of Zimbabwe. Her short fiction and essays have been published in eight countries. She lives with her son Kush in Geneva, where she works as counsel in an international organisation that provides legal aid on international trade law to developing countries.
Visit her here

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