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Novel set in Zimbabwe (‘It’s the best thing I’ve read in years…’)

27th September 2016

The Book of Memory by Petina Gappah, novel set in Zimbabwe.

Long listed for the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction 2016.

Memory, or Mnemosyne, an albino black woman, confined in Chikurubi prison in Harare, Zimbabwe writes down an account of her life. This is to form part of her appeal for Mnemosyne has been convicted of murdering a white man, Lloyd, her adopted father. The narrative shifts from an account of her childhood in an impoverished township, Mufakose, to her present life in prison.

novel set in zimbabwe

Pictured here: Our Advance Reader Copy

It is, at times, a harrowing read; Mnemosyne’s life as a young albino girl describes in agonising detail the miseries of being an outsider. While she hides inside away from the sun that would blister her skin instantly if she ventured out Mnemosyne repeats the words of the songs and games that the children play outside, but can never join in. School is made miserable because of bullies and even home offers precious little comfort, as Mnemosyne’s mother shows her no affection and is, at times, irascible to the point of violence. And then, one day, Mnemosyne is dressed in her Sunday best and taken, without explanation, to a café where her parents sell her to Lloyd.

When the narrative shifts to the adult Mnemosyne in Chikurubi prison the reader might well expect more painful-to-read detail, but there is an immediate difference for this is an adult Mnemosyne, who has benefitted from a good education, and who has gained wisdom and perspective and consequently the sequences in prison, whilst not underplaying the miseries of imprisonment, are lifted by delightful touches of humour at the expense of the guards, particularly the mean-spirited Synodia with her ridiculous vocal tic.

Mnemosyne is an engaging narrator, and Gappah uses her cynical perspective to introduce wonderfully disrespectful descriptions of the quirky characters that spring up throughout the novel, such as Sandy Knight-Bruce who “looked like a cross between the incarnation of Doctor Who played by Peter Davison and a male version of Miss Havisham.”

Ultimately, the novel offers a hopeful perspective. Just as the child, Mnemosyne, is saved by the books and education Lloyd gives her, so the prisoners in Chikurubi live in hope of being saved by a presidential pardon, which happened in reality in 2014 when Mugabe pardoned all but two of the 197 inmates of Chikurubi. The novel vividly evokes Zimbabwe past and present, and Gappah shows us a country, bogged down by corruption, trying desperately to move into the modern world.

If this was all Gappah had done with this novel, it would have been enough and it would have been a brilliant read, but she does so much more. For the book is not just an account of Mnemosyne’s life, it is an exploration of the nature of memory itself. Memory throws up vivid moments and this novel is full of these. Memory isn’t consistent; it shifts and changes and so does the narration. Each time Mnemosyne tells us the story of her sale to Lloyd, details change in the telling. There are gaps in her memory and things left unexplained. The effect of these things is to make the reader feel that they are on shifting sands and that sense of uneasiness and uncertainty pervades the novel. The reader desperately needs answers to the question that has plagued Mnemosyne throughout her life. Why was she sold to Lloyd? In addition, the reader has questions that Memory does know the answer to, such as why she killed Lloyd, but Gappah keeps us waiting for the answer to that one too.

This is masterful stuff and it’s hard to believe that it’s her debut novel. It’s the best thing I’ve read in years.

Ellen for the TripFiction Team

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  1. User: Jennifer S. Alderson

    Posted on: 28/09/2016 at 7:43 am

    Fantastic review of an intriguing book! Adding it to my backpack!


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