21. Reading: The Book of Memory

Memory is an albino women encarcerated for murder in a Zimbabwean prison. In Petina Gappah’s novel The Book of Memory (Faber & Faber, 2015), we read her letter/diary to a human rights advocate about how she came to live with the man for whose death she is now incarcerated. Many things about family ties and private lives are unspoken for well over three fourths of the book, until the puzzle takes shapes piece by piece. The entries span a period of several years, in which we also learn about life in the prison, the lives of the guards, the stories of other inmates, and of course, Memory’s life first in a Harare township, then at a wealthy district, and later also studying in Europe, until she comes back to Zimbabwe to reconnect with who has become her family.

It took quite a while to get me hooked, the many unspoken ties and secrets couldn’t evoke sufficient tension to read on for quite some time, and I was really only ready to say this was a good book during the last 25 pages. Until then, the story was ok, but never captivating, no real page-turning effect thus far. But then things started to fall into place, and even though – spoiler alert – we know Memory is innocent earlier on, the real drama about her having ended up in prision reveals itself only late in the story, but then ever more forcefully.

How did I come across the book?

It was recommended on one of those “The best new books by…”-lists, but I don’t really remember which one. Also, I read en essay of Petina Gappah in the New Yorker, and became interested in her prose work.

When and where did I read it?

I tried to finish it before going back to Bogotá to do fieldwork, but didn’t manage before the flight, and on the flight watched movies instead. So I only finished within the first days of fieldwork.

If I ever get out, I will throw birds of paradise from the top of the world. (p. 270)

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