“They are in the clothes that they wore to church on Sundays and when we went to town for window-shopping, because if you are going to had your daughter over to a perfect stranger, you need to look your best.”
So begins Petina Gappah’s “The Book of Memory”, a narrative that reflects upon the stories we tell ourselves and the way they shape our reality. “The Book of Memory” is framed as a series of journals written by an albino black woman from Zimbabwe imprisoned for murder. Memory, the title character, tells the unusual story of her life, learning as she does so that her memory and history do not always agree.
As a poor girl from an oppressed people whose albinism makes her undeniably, unavoidably different, Memory’s sensitivity and alertness to prejudice is well-honed. She sees the way women are used, not just in her country but around the world, as objects, tools. Her criticisms are laced with bitter humor:
“There is apparently no easier way to raise money from donors than to present a child, female and barefoot, with a plea for money to ward off all the dreadful things that could happen to it: the HIV infection, the orphaning, the household-heading, the poverty-miring and the single-mother-becoming.”
Likewise, Memory deftly describes the racist and elitist thinking of her pseudo-aunt, who “believed that it was not inexperience that made black people incapable of being farmers, but something intrinsic to their identity. For her, the ability to farm had nothing to do with access to loans and cheap labour, but had everything to do with the genetic accident of whether you were born white or black.” I was struck by how succinctly Gappah crafted an argument that is applied the world over to justify racism and to deny white privilege.
Gappah’s novel is well-crafted and original, winking and nodding to the reader with subtle pop culture references while simultaneously striking out in uncharted directions with her story. While the writing is crisp and clear, I sometimes wished that its complexity and lyricism matched that of the plot. All told, however, “The Book of Memory” was exactly as it was billed – a deliberate narrative of memories and, ultimately, of how our memories are not always the only truth. With eyes wide open, Memory, in the last pages of the novel, begins her life anew.
“I will not think about tomorrow. All I want to do is to live in the moment. It will not be possible for me to escape the past. But if I go back there, it will only be to find ways to make rich my present. To accept that there are no villains in my life, just broken people , trying to heal, stumbling in darkness and breaking each other, to find a way to forgive my father and mother, to forgive Lloyd, to find a path to my own forgiveness. To stop living what has been, until now, this pale imitation of life.”