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Catherine Taylor

Mugabe’s Zimbabwe was put firmly under the microscope in Petina Gappah’s award-winning 2009 short-story collection An Elegy for Easterly. Satirical and soulful, its voice and theme are further amplified in Gappah’s first novel, about a young woman on death row in Harare’s infamous Chikurubi maximum security prison.

Memory, the woman in question, is an outsider twice over. She is albino and, as such was a figure of superstition in the township of Mufakose, where she spent her first nine years. In the world of the prison her conspicuousness is due both to her appearance and to her improbable Cambridge education.

How Memory exchanged the township for life in a cultured professor’s house, with its trappings of books, servants and horses, and then ended up in her current predicament — convicted in a flawed trial for the murder of the professor, Lloyd Hendricks, to whom she claims her parents sold her — unravels in a series of stops and starts. It loops over and around itself, pulsating against the backdrop of a newly independent nation that soon begins to implode.

The novel is split into three alternating strands, all narrated by Memory as part of an appeal that she hopes will overturn her sentence: her incarcerated present, and the two sharply contrasting periods of her past — that with her family and the community in impoverished, cacophonous Mufakose; and her pri ...

Mugabe’s Zimbabwe was put firmly under the microscope in Petina Gappah’s award-winning 2009 short-story collection An Elegy for Easterly. Satirical and soulful, its voice and theme are further amplified in Gappah’s first novel, about a young woman on death row in Harare’s infamous Chikurubi maximum security prison.

Memory, the woman in question, is an outsider twice over. She is albino and, as such was a figure of superstition in the township of Mufakose, where she spent her first nine years. In the world of the prison her conspicuousness is due both to her appearance and to her improbable Cambridge education.

How Memory exchanged the township for life in a cultured professor’s house, with its trappings of books, servants and horses, and then ended up in her current predicament — convicted in a flawed trial for the murder of the professor, Lloyd Hendricks, to whom she claims her parents sold her — unravels in a series of stops and starts. It loops over and around itself, pulsating against the backdrop of a newly independent nation that soon begins to implode.

The novel is split into three alternating strands, all narrated by Memory as part of an appeal that she hopes will overturn her sentence: her incarcerated present, and the two sharply contrasting periods of her past — that with her family and the community in impoverished, cacophonous Mufakose; and her privileged existence at Lloyd’s architectural marvel of a house. It is an uneven novel, and while its gaps serve to illustrate narrative unreliability, or a revisionist approach to events in order to make sense of them, they are also one of its weaknesses.

The prison scenes and the chapters relating to Memory’s early childhood are the most accomplished. In Chikurubi, Gappah’s use of searing comedy in the face of degradation is infectious. She lampoons the prison guards with their petty hierarchies and Bible bashing, and the daily bouts of humiliation they inflict on the prisoners. She mocks the ridiculous hair extensions of one, the malapropisms of another, and her own place in this disorder: “It is not every day that one comes across a murdering albino outside a novel by Dan Brown.”

Self-deprecation, anger and the unexpected friendship between desperate people enable a form of survival — as does, ironically, the fact that capital punishment has been temporarily suspended because Zimbabwe is short of a hangman: “the country’s severe economic crisis is having an effect on the delivery of justice” is how the situation is officially reported.

Memory’s severing from her family and the events leading up to it are written with great poignancy. The protective father, the mother with inexplicable rages and a terror of spirit possession, and a trio of siblings with beatific names — Gift, Joy and Moreblessings, known as Mobhi — infuse these aspects of the story with suffering but also elation.

The narrative of Memory’s relationship with Lloyd and the years that she spends with him is problematic. Gappah crams this with references to vintage television shows and immersion in books: “I captured the castle. I went deep in the sea of adventure.” More pertinently, education makes her fully aware of the largely undocumented history of black Zimbabweans — her own history — and the all-too-pervasive influence of white colonial power.

When 17-year-old Memory falls in love for the first time, resulting in an unexpected breach with gentle, liberal Lloyd, Gappah does not go below the surface to examine her emotions fully, and the account of this whole period appears forced. The years are fast-forwarded until Lloyd’s demise, about which, up until the final point of revelation, Memory is oddly ambivalent.

For a novel saturated with death, The Book of Memory is most emphatically alive: from the nursery rhymes of the township streets and Memory’s mother’s love of 1970s hits, to Lloyd’s grandmother’s jazz records and the protest songs of uprising, it is always noisily on the move. Although Gappah overdoes the breathless litany of biblical and literary references, and the nightmarish apparitions from Shona culture, for the most part her language dazzles as it balances the wittily combative and the frankly voluptuous. The unrelenting nature of daily life for most Zimbabweans is not glossed over, and Gappah’s training as a lawyer (like her protagonist, she was raised in Zimbabwe and has a Cambridge degree) informs the cruel absurdity of the miscarriages of justice on display. That she manages to combine grim reality with an appealing likeability is what makes her a writer to take to the heart as well as the head.

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