The last choice for the reading of our dear English speaking book club under the theme Africa in Fiction, as seen from the Inside and the Outside of the Continent ended to the very same country from where we started this year´s book readings: Rhodesia was the land in Doris Lessing´s the Grass is Singing, and now we ended our literal journey to Zimbabwe, once known as Rhodesia but since 1980 known as Zimbabwe. (Mind though that Zimbabwe had already announced its’ independence 15 years before).
Pettina Gappah´s “The Book of Memory” was published in 2015. It took six years for her to finish the story, after her breakthrough with her first short story collection “An Elegy for Easterly”. In “The Book of Memory”, she writes in English, yet adds, from time to time, some sentences in Shona, her first language.
The focus on the book lies on an albino woman, Memory, or Mnemosyne, who is imprisoned in Zimbabwean penitentiary, on a death row convicted of murdering a wealthy white man, also known as her adoptive father. She starts to write down her life story, and from early on, we come to learn that her life, as she recalls it, was turned upside down, not actually as a consequence of the death of Lloyd, but as a consequence of “a long-ago day in August when the sun seared my blistered face and I was nine years old and my father and my mother sold me to a strange man”.
This special feature or flashback of her life defines her life as who is now and how the reader interprets her life to be. Also, as due to her albino appearance, which means that she lacks skin pigment, she is somehow stigmatized by her surrounding society: she is considered to be an outsider with her special features.
Petina Gappah writes an intriguing novel, where plot is being developed in the dialogue between the present and the past. Some of our book club readers found this way of telling too complicated in its’ structure, but some did not mind too much. Also, some sentences expressed in Shona language was felt confusing as the lack of translation left the meaning untouched (unless the reader puts an effort to find a dictionary). Despite these few flaws, Gappah way of writing feels fresh. She touches upon different social levels of the Zimbabwean society and gives some glimpses on the historical past. The personal tragedy in the story is almost too unbearable, but Gappah manages to write it down in a manageable voice.