The Book of Memory is a bittersweet novel. It tells the story of Memory, an albino woman on death row. The structure of this novel, and the unfolding of its events, reminded me of a similar device in Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things, where the reader knows that the tragic child Sophie Mol is fated to die from the outset. Here, two tragic events – Memory’s parents selling her to Lloyd as a child, and her conviction of this white man’s murder as an adult – are revealed at the start of the novel. However, the unfolding of the events that lead up to this, are slowly disclosed to the reader over the course of the tale. It is an effective device, and one is left gripped to find out how and why it all happened. Why did Memory confess to Lloyd’s murder? Why did her parents hand her over to stay with him? Only towards the end do we find out the truth behind these events.
Anyone who has visited an African township will appreciate the vivid truth of Gappah’s imagery. The cheeky tomato sellers, red-Sunbeam-polished stone porches, the oily-Vaselined-limbs of township children in their Sunday best, and the busybody aunties present on every dusty street. But the poignancy of this novel reveals the closeness in these communities is due to the forced intimacy of poverty. Our narrator only realises this when she is able to contrast it to the privileged world of white people she later inhabits. She remarks: “we were poor without knowing it. We accepted the simple order of our lives in the ignorance that richer lives were possible.”
Also saturating the imagery of township life is Gappah’s wonderful usage of Shona, which is interspersed throughout the novel, along with the narrator’s lamentations about the lack of a being educated properly in a recorded literary tradition of Shona. Her linguistic dexterity also reveals a fine ear for the subtler and more humourous aspects of Zimbabwean English.
Gappah uses language to great effect in conveying the liminal nature of Memory’s albinism and her two very different lives, at first in the township, and later in the suburbs. In Zimbabwe, privilege had in the colonial era been associated with murungu (white people). But the stigma associated with albinism means that Memory’s life is blighted by whiteness – she is a murungudunhu, a black woman imbued not with “the whiteness of privilege”, but, rather, “a ghastly whiteness” of ridicule and fakery. Expat Zimbabwe and its privileges are therefore also featured prominently in this novel – some surburban whites create “Little Britains” with summer parties full of Pimm’s cups on their smallholdings, while others, such as Lloyd, have somewhat “gone native”.
We see later that the superstition and stigma associated with Memory’s albinism is actually rooted in fear, which later protects her from bullies at school and in prison who associate her with evil spirits and black magic. But Memory’s otherness is just one aspect of a society that thrives on prejudices, besides racism, strict heteronormative attitudes are also rife.
Memory’s attitude to her albinism brought to mind another tragic literary protagonist – in Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye. The little black girl in that book prays every day for lighter skin and blue eyes, but in Gappah’s novel, the little Memory prays for a darker complexion and brown eyes. She envies the other children their beautiful brown skins and wishes for any other deformity than albinism, and it takes many years for her to make peace with herself. I do not know if this is an intentional literary reference to Morrison, but the book has been criticised by other reviewers for overdoing its displays of the author’s breadth of reading in ways that are sometimes forced. I can see why this has been said, but I am not sure it sufficiently detracts from the novel being otherwise structurally competent.
Indeed, Gappah’s prowess as a writer brings the inside of Zimbabwe’s notorious Chikurubi Maximum Prison vividly to life from the novel’s pages. The microcosmic prison drama is an oft-explored literary and cinematic theme, and there are reflexive references to this in the text. Gappah reveals a macabre sense of humour in these scenes. The narrator Memory observes a few times that there is so much more laughter in prison than she expected, but also notes that there was “an edge to her laugh” because she knew she was laughing into the darkness of her soul.
The Chikurubi chapters also reveal Zimbabwe’s awful treatment of its prisoners, reified through the institutional uses and abuses of eschatological sensibilities (and there is so much Biblical imagery deployed to chilling effect within the prison and the broader context of the novel). The inhumane rations given to each prisoner are shocking, and the cruelty of its precision, disturbing – half a toilet roll per week, four and a half sanitary pads per month. We are taken into the claustrophobic heart of solitary confinement in this novel, and the treatment of the inmates by warders signifies the twisted formation of hierarchies and othering in all human communities, no matter how pathetic.
One bit inside Chikurubi that I laughed at, even though I guess I really shouldn’t have, were the VIP prisoners who had bribed their way into solitary so that they could have their own cells despite sharing such privilege with murderers. These VIP prisoners were in jail for donor fraud following the revelations of schemes to get aid from donors of the “Save an African Girl Child” variety. Even though it is hilarious in a post-Band-Aid world of sensibilities, it also reveals the infuriating entitlement of state embezzlers who believed they still deserve Godfather-like privileges despite being criminals.
The normalised state corruption evidenced by the VIP prisoners, and other political vignettes, are skilfully woven into the narrative. Being a novel about Zimbabwe, politics is always there, lurking in the background. It is there in the segregation of whites and blacks, the grinding poverty of blacks, and the farm killings punctuating the “Rhodesian” surburban idyll. Politics is also the story behind the large groups of supporters of opposition parties that arrive in busloads at Chikurubi after being rounded up by the police, and it is there in the hyperinflation of billion dollar notes, and Memory’s shock to see the implosion of the country after a long spell overseas. However, the politics of Zimbabwe is so subtly articulated in this novel that it is not overpowering. The Book of Memory is a welcome addition to contemporary English fiction that should appeal both to a general audience, as well as to those readers specifically seeking out African literature.