BOOK REVIEW: The Book of Memory

By Diane De Beer Time of article published Nov 23, 2015

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The Book of Memory

Petina Gappah

(Faber and Faber)


When I read Petina Gappah’s An Elegy for Easterly – a collection of short stories with her homeland Zimbabwe as the backdrop – for which shewon the Guardian First Book Award with, I knew hers was an extraordinary voice.

A lawyer working in the international field, she had set her sights on writing and has now come up with her first novel, a haunting tale of a woman who had to work through many layers before she could get to who she really is and how to live her life.

Memory, the woman telling the story, is an albino woman, and anyone living in Africa will immediately have a sharp intake of breath, because these people have a horrific time of it.

When we meet her, she is locked up for life (in fact, waiting for death) in Chikurubi Maximum Prison in Harare.

Death sentence, maximum prison in Zimbabwe, life doesn’t get much tougher or more scary than that.

But Memory is sharing her story and telling us how she landed up in prison.


It’s an extraordinary tale.

She grew up in a poor township on the outskirts of town when, one day, her parents dressed her in her prettiest clothes and took her to town where they handed her over to Lloyd Hendricks, who stepped in as her stepfather.

The thing that haunted the little girl growing up away from her family, who so suddenly leapt out of her life, is the money that changed hands between her future protector and those who brought her into the world – more specifically, her mother.

It’s daunting but gripping stuff as you are taken through the lives of those who battle to survive and keep things together every second of the day.

While children don’t question the only world they know, and will find some happiness in any way they can, it is the parents who struggle to make ends meet and keep them growing.

Many of us have unhampered lives to a large extent and, when someone knocks on the car window, we even allow irritation to creep in.

Would anyone in the world be doing that if they had a choice?

It’s too hard a life and one few of us have had to endure.

It is people on the margins of society, fighting with all their might to survive, that Gappah encapsulates so magnificently.

Not only did she have to fight the colour of her skin more than anywhere else, but Memory also had to make sense of the rejection of the people who brought her into the world.


But she does and, as she tells about her reason for being in her unenviable position, she lambastes the Zimbabwean system of rule – prison warders are not exempt from her judgement.

It is interesting to note how a country’s prison system mirrors the society it serves, and how easily people adapt when they have no choice.

Those with power can wallow in the inability of their victims to escape their wrath in any way.

It’s an easy relationship to understand.

It might sound like a harrowing read, but Gappah has written it in almost thriller style, with the mystery revealing itself on every page and, with Memory’s beguiling voice and her unusual tale, it is easy to open your heart and unravel the life of this extraordinary woman.

It’s a unique story giving insight into a world many of us might witness yet not experience.

A haunting tale of hardship written from the heart.

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