Petina Gappah’s The Book of Memory is a remarkable and taut exploration of prejudice, history, and of course, memory. The book’s narrator and namesake, Memory, is an albino woman on death row in a Zimbabwean prison who is encouraged by her new lawyer to write her story for an American journalist who may be able to help win her freedom. Memory writes of the stark everyday life in prison and of the circumstances that have brought her there. But to fully explain, she must begin with what she remembers of her own history, centered around one pivotal, traumatic event: her parents selling her to a white man when she was nine years old.
Gappah displays a mastery of subverting expectations in a way that does not feel cheap or unearned. Her narrator explores her own memories and how her interpretations have affected her actions, for better and worse. She relates how she feels piecing together her full story, only herself learning the full truth as she’s nearing the end, and she conveys the agony that comes with realizing how differently she may have lived her life had she sought the truth instead of relying on her own assumptions. Nothing in this book is what it first seems, not because her narrator is unreliable, not because she tries to trick us, but because memory itself is a strange and treacherous creature, even (or especially) when it tries to protect us. And on top of all that, the book is very funny, brightening what could have been a very heavy read given the very serious subject matter.
I was reminded of several other works as I read this book. The exploration of witchcraft and superstition in modern-day Africa reminded me of Jonny Steinberg’s 3-Letter Plague. The style and mood reminded me of Chigizie Obioma’s The Fishermen. The connection of her narrator’s circumstances with her country’s past and present political violence, as well as her effective tying of dreams to memory, reminded me of Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children. The reflections on the nature of memory reminded me of Sarah Polley’s masterful film Stories We Tell. That’s some mighty lofty company, and Petina Gappah deserves her place among them.