01. The Book of Memory, by Petina Gappah

Experimenting with using my own photos for 20 Books of Summer…

Where I read it: on the Tube to see my friend Ollie at the National Portrait Gallery this weekend; on the couch at home with a coffee.

I’m trialling a new, briefer, more scattergun approach to reviewing with the 20 Books of Summer. Since I don’t have anyone to answer to (neither editors nor publicists) regarding these, I can be a little looser with my impressions, and perhaps shorter, too. Anyway, The Book of Memory: in summary, an albino black woman on death row in Zimbabwe for murdering the white man that she lived with writes her version of the story.

It was longlisted for the Baileys Prize, but it didn’t make the shortlist, and I can kind of see why. It’s not that there’s anything wrong with the writing: it’s precise, limpid, descriptive but not florid. There is a certain stiffness to the dialogue, though, and I suspect Gappah is attempting to mask that by not having very many dialogue scenes. Memory, or Memo, does a lot of remembering, but it’s mostly of the diffuse “we used to do this as children; our house looked like that; we would often go to so-and-so” variety. The actual, pinned-down flashback scenes are infrequent.

This probably contributes to the other problem I had with The Book of Memory: the characters are ciphers. Or maybe “symbols” would be a better word. Memory doesn’t have a very consistent personality; we see flashes of it, like when she defiantly informs the pious lady visitor from the Goodwill Fellowship that what she misses most about life outside of prison is “a good hard fuck”. Or when she assesses herself at seventeen as a Catholic schoolgirl blinkered by dogmatism. But mostly she’s just a lens. Lloyd, the white man who adopts her (well—he buys her, but their relationship is parental, not sexual), is the same. We’re told he’s a very kind man, but we don’t see him actually doing much for most of the book. Nor do we get a sense of their relationship as it developed in real time. Memory is constantly analyzing, but she’s analyzing material that Gappah doesn’t actually give her readers access to. We’re told what to make of experiences that Memo has had, but we don’t have any context for them. It’s difficult to describe the effect, but once you notice it, you can’t get around the challenge it presents. You could argue, I suppose, that this kind of withholding makes the novel more realistic, but it doesn’t make it particularly satisfying. And it doesn’t happen with the kind of regularity or emphasis that would suggest it’s deliberate.

I’m told that Gappah’s first book, the short story collection An Elegy for Easterly, is outstanding, and that I should have read it first. I’d still like to read it; a lot of the problems I had with The Book of Memory can be categorised as formal shortcomings. I suspect a story collection might give Gappah a better chance to show off her strengths.

The Book of Memory, Petina Gappah (London: Faber, 2015)

5 thoughts on “01. The Book of Memory, by Petina Gappah

  1. It’s really interesting to read the difficulties you had with this, as I read it at the weekend and actually wondered why it hadn’t been shortlisted. I enjoyed it’s sparse elements, and saw Memory’s detachment as a product of her upbringing. It’s almost like her perceived abandonment just cut off her ability to connect, which can happen with trauma at a young age.

    I love that two people can read one book and experience it differently. 🙂

    1. I think that’s a very legitimate way of reading it! I considered that interpretation, too; I just thought that if Gappah had wanted us to understand that she was traumatized, she could have portrayed her relationship with Lloyd differently (or just *more*.) Have to say, though, that it’s a lot better than The Improbability of Love – if Gappah had replaced Rothschild on the shortlist, I wouldn’t be complaining!

  2. I like your ’20 Books of Summer’ style!
    Also, this is a book I want to read – the premise appeals to me. I do love misery. 🙂

    1. It’s a fabulous premise – if you do read it, I’d love to know if you’re more convinced! I just chatted to a work colleague about it and she didn’t think the characters were too opaque or flimsy.

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