Friday, May 20, 2016

Contemporary Fiction: The Book of Memory by Petina Gappah

I came across Petina Gappah's The Book of Memory while on a search for some contemporary books by African-American writers.The premise interested me almost immediately as it is always an adventure when a book is narrated by an unreliable narrator, especially one whose memory of what happened may be what saves their life.

The Situation: Memory is a young African albino woman currently serving a prison sentence in Zimbabwe for the murder of a white man. Memory was actually given the death penalty, but because of upcoming elections, and the fact that there currently is not an executioner available who could carry out the act of hanging a prisoner, Memory continues to live in Chikurubi Prison with other female inmates. Because a journalist has become interested in her story, and her lawyer also believes it will help, Memory is writing down not only what really happened to the man she has been accused of killing, but also her entire life story and how she would end up in such a situation in the first place.

The Problem: Memory being accused of a murder she assures the reader she did not commit is only the most recent development in what has not been an easy life. Born with white skin to a black family in Zimbabwe, Memory stood out wherever she went, and as a child was made fun of and teased by her classmates. Her home life did not offer much reprieve as her mother could barely stand to look at her, or touch her, while often being overcome by fits of anger and rage that seemed to come out of nowhere and were often directed at her children. And then there were the tragedies that claimed the lives of Memory's older brother, and later her younger sister. It would be shortly after the second death that Memory would be handed over to Lloyd - the white man she would later be accused of killing - while he gives her mother a wad a cash in return. It is this memory that will not allow her to return to her parent's house, even when she is old enough to do so on her own.

Genre, Themes, History: This is a fiction novel set in modern-day Zimbabwe, but covers the recent history of the country, including its fight for independence and the present political climate. The prison Memory is sentenced to is a real place, but Gappah states in the Acknowledgments that she was never able to visit the real thing, so the one in the book is of her own imagination. Because of Memory's unusual skin color, the book not only deals with racism and prejudice against the other, but also long held beliefs by many in Zimbabwe regarding witchcraft, curses, and angry spirits. Many, including her mother, believe that the family is being punished, and that is why Memory looks the way she does, as well as the reason she is often ill. And the deaths of the older brother and youngest daughter do not help persuade anyone to believe otherwise. Even after she comes to live with Lloyd, Memory is plagued by nightmares as she cannot forget that her parents sold her without so much as a backwards glance. And of course, with the title being The Book of Memory, there is much discussion about how we remember things and how those memories can shape our lives, even if they are wrong.

My Verdict: This book is very slow at the beginning, but about a third of the way through it starts to pick up steam, especially as little hints are dropped and some secrets are revealed, eventually pointing to larger revelations that tell the whole story. At first it can feel like all of the hinting is just that: hints that tease the reader but do not actually lead anywhere. But eventually they do and the wait is pretty worth it. The payout for sticking with the book is substantial, and while not every question gets an answer, I still felt satisfied with the ending, and even a little hopeful.

Favorite Moment: When Memory is allowed to tutor one of the guard's daughters, allowing her some free time outside of her usual area, away from the other prisoners, and a chance to enjoy common luxuries she had not enjoyed in years, such as a hot shower and television.

Favorite Character: This is difficult only because so many of the characters are hard to like. There are the prisoners, and then there are the guards; Memory's parents are not painted in the best light as they handed her over to a strange man in exchange for money; and Memory has very few close friends, mostly because of her condition. Lloyd seems like the obvious choice, but there is so much about him that the reader just does not know. And even with what Memory eventually realizes, there still is not that much insight into who Lloyd really is.

Recommended Reading: While The Book of Memory is about a black girl with white skin, I Am Radar by Reif Larsen is about a white boy born with black as midnight skin. It is a different kind of book, and also much longer, but Larsen also plays with the idea of skin color and the results are pretty interesting.

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