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Thursday, April 7, 2016

Review of THE BOOK OF MEMORY by Petina Gappah

3 Stars
I came across this book on the longlist for the 2016 Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction.  Gappah is the first Zimbabwean author to be longlisted for the Prize, and the plot summary of her novel suggested an interesting read.  Unfortunately, I found it uneven in quality.

Memory is an albino black woman on death row in a maximum security prison in Harare; she has been convicted of murdering a wealthy white professor, Lloyd Hendricks, her adoptive father.  She is writing her life story for an American journalist who fights miscarriages of justice. 

The narrative is anything but linear.  The zigzagging between past and present does suggest the jumbled way in which people often recall the past, but the byzantine structure often seems a cheap way of creating suspense.  Details are deliberately withheld and there is a lot of loaded foreshadowing.  Characters and events are mentioned but then not explained until much later.  For instance, there are several references to “all the ugliness with Zenzo” and “after the business with Zenzo”  and one chapter even ends with “Then Zenzo entered our lives, and everything wilted,” yet the full explanation of Zenzo and his impact on her life isn’t given until much later.  The author tries to justify the dancing around central events by having Memory write, “I had thought that when I sat down to write, it would be to tell a linear story . . . I did not realize the extent to which my current reality and random memories would intrude into this narrative.” But the repeated avoidance of discussing the most important events just becomes annoying.

Also in terms of structure, too much focus is given to prison life and not enough on other aspects of Memory’s life.  Some of the details of prison life and the information about the backstories of other inmates seem unnecessary.  What is missing are more details about her life with Lloyd which is only sketched in vague terms. 

The novel examines the unreliability of memory, especially memories of childhood.  Memory interprets events from her “undocumented” past as best she can but it is obvious that her knowledge and memories are incomplete.  She knows virtually nothing about her parents’ past; they seem “to have emerged complete into the present, without history.”  Memory directly addresses the problem with memory:  “Sometimes you come to understand the things you cannot possibly have known; they make sense and you rewrite the memory to make it coherent.”  This observation and her comments such as “I did not understand then what he said” and “I only understood fragments of their conversation” imply that Memory is not a reliable narrator, that she is reconstructing her life story from misunderstood and fragmented pieces.  It does not come a surprise that Memory ends up asking, “How do you begin your life again after you find out that everything you thought was true about yourself is wrong?”

There is a great deal of local colour.  Various elements of Zimbabwean culture and mythology are included, especially the belief in ngozi, “the spirit of vengeance that follows a violent death.”  Often long sentences in the Shona language, the Bantu language native to the Shona people of Zimbabwe, are included without translation:  “Her voice came back to us from down the corridor.  ‘Huyai mundinzwirewo zvirimuno.’”  At one point Memory observes that “the best-educated among us have sacrificed our languages at the altar of what the whites deem supreme” so the author obviously shows she values local languages, but it is frustrating for the reader not to always understand.

I did enjoy the touches of humour.  Memory describes the food in prison:  “there is not enough oil in the fried vegetables or there is so much that you almost fear that America will invade.”  One of the prison guards who is training to be a court interpreter is prone to use malapropisms:  “there are women, married women, whole married women, five, six children later, who have not had a single organism.”

I’m surprised that this book made the longlist of such a prestigious literary award.  It certainly does not match the quality of A God in Ruins by Kate Atkinson, A Dictionary of Mutual Understanding by Jackie Copleton, My Name is Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Strout, or A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara, the other books I’ve read from that longlist.