There is so much I can say about this book but to summarize it, I can say it is a gripping story. It is a book that exposes humanity. It shows not just the failings of humanity but the goodness that is inherent in it when you choose to look a little deeper than the surface. The Book of Memory by Petina Gappah is narrated by an Albino female character who is named Memory. She is arrested and sentenced to death for the murder of Lloyd who is a white man and also her benefactor. Though, the novel starts with her responding to her lawyer’s advice that she puts her thoughts to paper and record all that happened to her, it was an avenue for her to heal, look at her past and reconcile with it while looking towards the future. All of these stories were written by her while in prison.
Memory believes she was sold to the white man (Lloyd) even though that story was dismissed in court as a fable because such was not done in Zimbabwe, it is the foundation of her beliefs all through her life till she gets the complete picture at the end of the story. The feeling of being abandoned by her family and that sense of loss characterized her being.
She finds a new family in Lloyd, Liz and Sandy but all fell apart when Zenzo stepped in the picture. She feels that sense of betrayal again just like she felt when she thought she was abandoned and rejected by her parents. She plans her revenge but in spite of it all, her love for Lloyd transcends the pain until he is painfully murdered and she is seen at the crime scene.
The book explores many themes like betrayal, friendship, courage, family, racism, colourization, political upheaval (the book is set in Zimbabwe when power moves from one political party to the other after independence) etc. Memory bonds with the women of the prison and with Loveness who treats her specially and we discover that it is because in Memory, Loveness sees her own daughter. The novel also exposes the terrible state of prison systems and judicial system of Zimbabwe and the hypocrisy that characterizes the place. The women are kept like animals in the most unsanitary conditions. The theme of religion and superstition are also relayed in the book but importantly is the matter of skin colour and how it is viewed. For Memory it was an everyday experience that caused her to shrink more into herself and pray for a darker skin colour.
“I prayed every second for God to darken my skin. After Reverend Bergen said ‘Ask anything of me, says the Lord’, I redoubled my prayers. I made all sorts of bargains… But my skin remained what it had always been. Religion having failed me, I turned to science.”The Book of Memory
The internal turmoil of her feeling out of place and her relocation to Lloyd’s home, Memory found solace in books and it became necessary for her survival and mental health. “Crippled by fear and longing for home, I was saved by books. The worlds I travelled to allowed to me to escape the pain of being uprooted from Mufakose.”
Memory uses vivid language to describe her circumstances and surroundings in prison. She lets the reader into the inner recesses of her mind and we see her strengths and vulnerability. The plot isn’t linear as it shows memories are not linear. Thoughts can interject other thoughts therefore a linear plot is almost impossible to achieve.
However, through Memory’s trials she becomes a woman who understands the world better. She comes to accept that things happen for a reason and the acceptance of that fact, makes her come to peace with herself. That inner peace that comes is the redemption for her even though by societal standards she is guilty.
Great read and highly recommended. Rating: 4 stars