diverse december: (real world) non-western setting

And Diversity December Bingo continues! This time, I’m reviewing The Book of Memory by Pentina Gappah. This is the story of Memory, an albino woman from Zimbabwe who has been found guilty of the murder of Lloyd, a white man who bought her from her parents at nine years old.

She is the only woman on death row. However, a potentially life-changing election is on the horizon, so Memory’s lawyer has told her to write down the experiences that led to her imprisonment. She specifically tells her story to a white journalist, who will be publicising Memory’s plea. I’m not going to lie, this was the main problem that I had with the novel. Why do we need Memory’s thoughts to be written specifically for this white, Western reader? It annoys me that her experience is only seen as authentic when seen through this lens. (There were also a couple of plot hiccups, but these didn’t bother me as much.)

However, despite these flaws, Gappah has written a stunning novel that meditates upon the gaps between the rich and the poor, the flaws of memory, and the idea of being an outsider. This last point is most obvious in Memory’s albinism. The only other book that I’ve read with an albino main character is What Sunny Saw in the Flames. Like that (excellent) novel, The Book of Memory has many a description of the feeling of estrangement that often comes with the condition.

Their attitude was implicitly rooted in the language itself. Bofu is a noun class five, denoting things, just like benzi, the word for a mad person. Chirema, like a chimumumu, is a noun class seven, also denoting things, objects, lifeless objects or incomplete, deficient persons. As a murungudunhu or musope, I find myself with normal people in noun class one. As a murungudunhu, I am a black woman who is imbued not with the whiteness of murungu, or privilege, but of dunhu, of ridicule and fakery, a ghastly whiteness.

Unlike What Sunny Saw in the Flames, furthermore, The Book of Memory also goes into more detail about the physical realities of albinism, and how they (crucially to the plot) made Memory want to fit in even more – even if it endangers the people that she loves.

Overall, I enjoyed The Book of Memory. It is not perfect by any stretch of the imagination, but its play with memory (and particularly a child’s memory) and outsiderness is fantastic.

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7 thoughts on “diverse december: (real world) non-western setting

  1. Danya says:

    You’ve definitely piqued my interest in this book! I think the lens of the white, educated person (ie the reporter) would bother me too, but since I’ve been forewarned it might be easier to swallow.

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  2. Jackie B @ Death by Tsundoku says:

    I haven’t heard of this book before today– thank you for introducing me to a new book! This really sounds interesting. I’m glad the realities of dealing with albinism were brought to the fore. That was something I was disappointed in with What Sonny Saw. I don’t know anyone who is an albino, and I imagine there is a lot to deal with! Particularly for Memory, who lives in a world where skin color means a lot…

    I wonder, is Memory an albino who comes from a white-skinned or black-skinned family? I get the impression she is supposed to be black-skinned African, but you don’t say explicitly. Is that why the idea of sharing this story through the eyes of a white journalist is a struggle?

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