The Book of Memory

Memory is on death row in Chikurubi maximum prison in Zimbabwe convicted of murdering her white adopted father, Lloyd Hendriks. Her lawyer has asked her to write her story as part of an application for parole. The storyline thus follows Memory’s memory.

Memory is an albino.

In The Book of Memory, Gappah skilfully takes the reader through the life of “a black woman who is imbued not with the whiteness of murungu, of privilege, but of dhunu, of ridicule and fakery, a ghastly whiteness” (p.10). This sharply raises questions about what it really means to be white. At face value (both figuratively and literally), Memory is white, but in reality she falls outside the construct of whiteness. In fact her “fake” whiteness invokes vicious prejudice from both black and white. Even nature rejects her. As a child she is not able to play outside because the sun negatively impacts her skin.

Memory is a misfit. Even her mother sees her as a curse.

Guppah is a shrewd storyteller who knits several themes and still retains the internal coherence of her storyline: prison conditions and abuse of power; women abuse in the name of culture; dangers of undiagnosed depression; subtle racism; and more. Like many African writers, she also surfaces the ugly head of religion that takes advantage of desperate people. One of the central messages though is that we should test our assumptions lest they lead us to closed tunnels. Had Memory known that she was not sold to Lloyd, her destiny might have been very different.

Gappah is a mistress of description. Her expansive detail locks the reader in a situation. In portraying the regimented and abusive prison conditions she writes about four and half sanitary pads a month, and 25ml of toothpaste a week. She also talks about the “forced intimacy” of township life.

Guppah is also a mistress of cliff-hanger. She introduces a topic, leaves it percolating, through a storyline that moves forwards and backwards between Memory’s past and present, between different geographies. Because it is based on memory, the storyline is not linear. You don’t know what to expect. This makes for interesting reading.

By writing in the first person, Gappah succeeds in getting the reader into Memory’s skin. You feel her emotions, pain, and anxieties. You own her story.

Of course a story set in Zimbabwe would not be complete without those interesting names: Truthness; Locadia; Verity; Evernice; Marvellous; Loveness; Promise; Providence; Privilege; and of course Memory.

The book is not for the faint hearted. To follow the storyline and grasp its richness, you must be alert. I recommend the book to those concerned with prejudice of any kind.

The Book of Memory is Petina Gappah’s debut novel. She is the winner of the Guardian First Book Award for her stories, An Elegy for Easterly.


The limiting effects of untrue assumptions;

  • Sold because of hate

Given to Lloyd because of love – could have had liberating consequences and completely different outcomes for Memeory’s destiny.

  • By transporting Memory from the poverty of township life where blacks live, to leafy suburbs where whites live, Guppah draws parallels between being black and white in Zimbabwe.

by Petina Gappah

(Faber & Faber, 2015)