“The story that you have asked me to tell you does not begin with the pitiful ugliness of Lloyd’s death. It begins on a long-ago day in August when the sun seared my blistered face and I was nine years old and my mother and father sold me to a strange man.”
So opens “The Book of Memory,” Petina Gappah’s mesmerizing new novel, which infuses a female inmate’s tale with Hitchcockian suspense, set against the backdrop of Zimbabwe’s turbulent history and culture.
Not since “Orange Is the New Black” has a women’s prison offered such an embarrassment of storytelling riches.
As she languishes on death row, Memory, also known as Memo, writes down an account for an American journalist, toggling between daily humiliations in squalid Chikurubi and flashbacks to her early years near Harare, Zimbabwe’s capital and largest city.
An albino and the middle daughter of a kind yet impoverished carpenter and his unstable wife, Memory has suffered abuse and suspicion, but a deeper injury comes when her parents sell her to Lloyd, a white classics scholar who sweeps his new ward off to Summer Madness, an estate in Harare’s northern suburbs.
Gappah shifts nimbly from present to past, layering in Memory’s back story. The novel’s two halves — one set in the black township, the other in an affluent white neighborhood — highlight Memory’s peculiar status: an African with pale skin who moves fluidly between racial worlds without feeling rooted in either.
“I loved the story of the peppered moth because it seemed to me that it was the only creature that understood what it was to be black and white,” she says about a science project. “Like the peppered moth, I adapted to my changing environments.”
As the novel circles closer to the secret at its heart — Lloyd’s death — questions arise about Memo herself. The pieces of the puzzle won’t snap into place. Gappah plays off the current vogue for unreliable narrators: “That is the thing about 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.”
Gradually, Memo gives voice to historical memory, the various tribal cultures and languages corralled by British overlords, leading to the chaotic creation of Zimbabwe in 1980 after a violent war. Chikurubi’s prisoners embody this historical memory, from the longest serving inmate, who can recall only Rhodesia, to the young woman who can’t speak Shona or English, the nation’s primary languages.
Gappah ingeniously weaves Shona words and constructs into “The Book of Memory,” sometimes mid-sentence, underscoring the tensions between the legacy of European colonialism and African desire for self-determination.
As the novel builds to its startling resolution, Gappah illuminates a Zimbabwe in transition, framed by an old-fashioned murder mystery. Crisply written, wryly humorous, “The Book of Memory” attests to her astonishing talent.
The Book of Memory
By: Petina Gappah.
Publisher: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 276 pages, $26.
Hamilton Cain is the author of “This Boy’s Faith: Notes From a Southern Baptist Upbringing.” He lives in Brooklyn.