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.