The Book of Memory, Petina Gappah

Remember before, when I was reading Anthony Schneider’s Repercussions and talking all about how I wished I read more books about good people who are trying their best? Guess what happened! I read The Book of Memory, which is about an albino woman in Zimbabwe who’s in jail for murdering the white man to whom her parents sold her when she was nine years old. Guess what it is about! Contrary to expectation, it’s totally about good people trying their best!

The Book of Memory

I know, I know, I know what you are thinking. You’re thinking: But, murder? But, selling a child to an adult man? I perfectly understand your concerns. Nevertheless, and trust me, The Book of Memory is all about good people trying their best. I was interested in this premise before I began reading, but the book surprised and moved me with where it took the story of Memory’s past and present. This is a story about things not being what they look like, and that is a type of story I absolutely cherish.

To begin with, of course, there’s Memory herself. As an albino child in her home township of Mufakose, she is accustomed to drawing the confused (at best) and hostile (at worst) glances of those who see her. She’s a freak, an oddity, an exception in her own family, perhaps a witch or evildoer, simply because of the color (lack of color) of her skin and hair. Under Lloyd’s care, she’s seen as a servant, a ward, a charity case. At the same time, although Memory herself is rarely seen for who she really is, it doesn’t make her any better at seeing the world around her clearly. Like the judges on her case, like the people of her township, like us as readers even, Memory’s vision is clouded by what she expects the world to look like.

The Book of Memory is Petina Gappah’s first novel, and it bears some of the marks of a first novel. Certain plot threads are underdeveloped, such as Memory’s doomed relationship with an artist called Zenzo, and it’s possible too much is made early on of the murdery-mystery bits of the book, considering that Lloyd’s death isn’t really the point of the book. But Gappah’s writing is wry and readable, and I fell in love with even the most minor of her characters.

Some bits I liked:

His career has risen with our country’s collapse. . . . His painting speaks truths that the government wants to hide, it is said. He is the artist exiled from his homeland because his work shows a reality before which the government flinches. None of it is true, but who cares for truth when there is a troubled homeland and tortured artists to flee from it?

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.

  • I am SO SAD that my library book needed to go back before I had a chance to read it, but I’m determined to get to this soon. I love depressing, dark things AND people trying their best, so I’m sure I’ll adore this.

    • Yes, I really think you’ll like it! I mean, do be aware that it’s a debut novel with debut novel problems, like it’s not a perfect book, and there are plot points that are very underdeveloped, etc. But I just liked the writing so much.

  • I will be looking for this one. With all the sad going on in this world, we all need an account of good people trying their best.

    • I know! I’m fixing to start reading a book about slavery (Yaa Gyasi’s Homegoing, which appears to be one of the buzzy books of the season), and I know I’m going to need something a little less grim about the state of humanity when I finish that one.

  • I saw this somewhere else today. I am definitely interested in it now that I’ve read your lovely review!

  • Stefanie@SoManyBooks

    What an interesting sounding story. And one doesn’t find very many albinos in literature. I had a boy in my Spanish class in high school who was albino. He was almost blind and his skin and hair were the color of porcelain. He was in a grade ahead of me so I didn’t get to know him but he was good at Spanish.

    • One really does NOT. The only one I can think of off the top of my head is the albino villain of either The Da Vinci Code or Angels and Demons (it’s been so long since I read Dan Brown that I can’t remember which). It was NOT THE BEST.

  • Alley

    From your initial description, I very much would not have guessed this is about good people trying their best.

  • This one has been on my list for a while! It does sound even better through your review. Have to get hold of this book.

  • I must say I was appalled from the first two paragraphs on how this could be a good book. But as you say, I think I should read and find out what the author intends to tell.

  • I like books that can surprise you. This is already on my list, but you’re making it feel more urgent!

    • Yes! It’s good! I mean it’s definitely a debut novel, but I loved the writing, and the themes were really great for me.

  • Stop stop stop it with all these great recommendations lately. I can’t read everything!

  • Sounds fascinating! Definitely on my TBR listing!

  • I adored this book! I’m so glad you’ve read and reviewed it because it’s reminded me about it and now I’m thinking about it and that’s making me happy.

  • So I *think* you are the only person I’ve seen review this one, which is a shame because I saw blurbs for it and thought, “WOW this sounds excellent and I hope others think so too.”

    I’m glad to at least read one good review of it, and that it managed to transcend its potentially gimmicky blurb. I will continue to wish for my library to order it for me.

  • Aonghus Fallon

    The funny thing about the racism which precipitated the vote in favour of Brexit is it seems to have had two different origins (1) fears of an influx of Middle-Eastern refugees & (2) Resentment towards other EU citizens who were primarily coming to London to work. I think it was a combination of the two that provided the necessary tipping point. Ironically it was the areas of Britain where mixed races were most common that voted to remain (ie, London) and predominantly white areas (for example, the Home Counties) that voted to leave.

    So we’re talking about a bunch of old people (ie, pre-EU) who want England to be white and great again – this, a generation who grew up in the Sixties. Nice.