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)