Until the reprieve that Vernah is fighting for comes, if it comes at all, I write this in the shadow of the gallows. If the Department of Public Prosecution and the Department of Prisons have their way, I will swing from a rope and hang until my neck lengthens to breaking point or it snaps and my bowels open and my life is extinct and I am given a pauper’s funeral and an unmarked grave.
Memory is a category D prisoner in Chikurubi Maximum Security Prison in Harare, Zimbabwe. Convicted of killing a white man, as she waits for her death sentence to be carried out, she writes her story down for Melinda Carter, a Washington based journalist.
Memory was born into poverty in the Mufakose township in Harare:
We were poor without knowing it. There was nothing ennobling or romantic or life-affirming about our poverty. It just was. And you could say that we did not know just how poor we were because everyone else was the same. We accepted the simple order of our lives in the ignorance that other, richer lives were possible.
Memory relates stories of her childhood, her brother and sisters, her parents. Everything she tells the reader is underpinned by two things: that her parents sold her to a white academic, Lloyd Hendricks, whose murder she now stands accused of and that she is an albino and, therefore, treated differently. She tells us of the attitude of the children she grew up with, commenting that the papers focused on her condition in the initial reports of the murder:
Their attitude was implicitly rooted in the language itself. Bofu is in noun class five, denoting things, just like benzi, the word for a mad person. Chirema, like a chimumumum, is in noun class seven, also denoting things, objects, lifeless objects or incomplete, deficient persons. But murungudunhu is heavy with meaning. As a murungudunhu, I am a black woman who is imbued not with the whiteness of murungu, of privilege, but of dunhu, of ridicule and fakery, a ghastly whiteness.
What’s interesting, as the book and Memory’s story unravels, is that her sale to Lloyd Hendricks is not as sinister as I was expecting it to be. I was braced for a tale of abuse but what Lloyd actually gives Memory is an education and a place in a privileged white society few have access to. Gappah exploits the two parts of Memory’s skin colour – the condition that makes me black but not black, white but not white – to show two very different lifestyles being led in the same Zimbabwean capital. Regardless, however, both sides carry dark secrets which have to be hidden from society.
The novel considers race, colonialism, class, gender and memory. The fourteen category D prisoners whom Memory spends most of her time with are mentioned throughout the novel in relation to their daily lives and the prison conditions. We are told near the beginning of the novel what their crimes consist of but Gappah largely puts these aside as she writes about women who are human beings above all. As for Memory’s memory, the big question, of course, is whether it’s reliable or not and how much does she really know about her childhood?
The Book of Memory is a gripping tale of a life which led to death row. Devoid of sensationalism, Gappah focuses on how universal themes and ideas affect individuals on a daily basis. While she grapples with these themes, they are mostly only present in the context of the story and it’s perfectly possible to read the novel purely as an interesting tale of two sets of lives. A multi-layered, fascinating tale. The best type of novel, I find. The Book of Memory is a gem.