In The Spotlight: Petina Gappah’s The Book of Memory

Hello, All,

Welcome to another edition of In The Spotlight. The unreliable narrator has been an element in many crime novels. When it’s done well, that question of whether the narrator is being accurate/truthful can add to the suspense of a story. Let’s take a look at a case of unreliable narrator today and turn the spotlight on Petina Gappah’s The Book of Memory.

As the novel begins, a young albino woman named Mnemosyne, who’s usually known as Memory, or ‘Memo,’ is beginning a letter to a journalist named Melinda Carter, who has a history of exposing miscarriages of justice. Mnemosyne is in prison in Harare, convicted of the murder of her adoptive father, a white man named Lloyd Hendricks. In Zimbabwe, a murder conviction carries with it a mandatory death sentence. But, there’s been a change of government, and there is a chance that Mnemosyne may escape the death sentence if she can appeal her conviction. Her lawyer has suggested that she tell her story, and hopefully show that her case doesn’t warrant execution. And sending the story to a well-known journalist is a way to make her case public.

With that, Mnemosyne begins her story. She tells of her childhood with her parents, her brother, Givhi, and her sisters, Joyi and Mobhi. The family has little money, but at the same time, they aren’t desperately poor. Because Mnemosyne is albino, some people in the village consider her cursed. Others simply won’t accept her. But, for the most part, the family manages, and Mnemosyne discovers a love of books and learning.

It’s not a happy family, though. Mnemosyne’s mother, Moira, has troubling periods of depression. Her father tries to hold the family together as best he can, but it’s not easy. Everything changes when Lloyd Hendricks meets the family. As Mnemosyne puts it (she is nine at the time), her parents sell her to Hendricks, and she goes to live with him and his household. And, no, before you head towards the obvious conclusion, it’s not a case of trafficking. Promise.

For the next nine years, Mnemosyne lives with Hendricks. She attends a private school and does well enough to get a good university scholarship at Cambridge. After some time away, she returns to Zimbabwe, not exactly sure what she’s going to do with her life. And that’s when Hendricks dies. Mnemosyne is promptly arrested, and it’s not long before she’s found guilty. There seems to be a motive, too, since she was set to inherit the house. And there’s a witness who saw her with the body.

Mnemosyne’s only hope is to tell the entire truth – the whole story of her life and of what happened – so that she might have a chance to be released, or at least, to have her sentence commuted. And that’s what she does.

The story is told from Mnemosyne’s point of view (first person), so we see things through her eyes. And that’s what adds in the factor of the unreliable narrator. Some of the incidents she shares take place during her childhood, so they’re remembered and told through a child’s eyes. And, as the story goes on, we learn that there are several things about the family, about Hendricks, and about other things, that Mnemosyne didn’t know at first. Those secrets have also distorted the story of what really happened, both to Mnemosyne and to Hendricks. As readers learn the truth, it becomes clearer that things are not at all as they seem. And, as Mnemosyne learns the truths she either never knew or wouldn’t acknowledge, we see how much of a toll the secrecy has taken on her.

The story takes place in Zimbabwe, and Gappah places the reader there in several ways. There are several uses of local words (everyone’s different, but I didn’t have difficulty guessing at the words from context). There are also underlying cultural beliefs that are explored, and that play their roles in the story. There’s also some history mentioned in the story, as some major changes took place in Zimbabwe during Mnemosyne’s lifetime, and she’s aware of them.

The solution to the mystery of Lloyd Hendricks’ death isn’t a happy one. Saying much more about it would, I think, spoil some important effects. Suffice it to say that the real truth is very sad. At the same time, there is some wit in the story, as Mnemosyne reflects. At one point, for instance, she’s describing one of her fellow inmates, who’s in prison for fraud relating to a charity she set up:
‘…the term ‘political violence’ is to donors what Pavlov’s bell was to his dogs.’

Mnemosyne is incisive and thoughtful, and she is able to sometimes find the (somewhat dark) wit in things.

This is the story of Mnemosyne’s life, so it sometimes weaves back and forth a bit, between her childhood, and her current life in prison. And, as the layers are pulled away and the real truth about Mnemosyne’s life is revealed, she returns to some of those earlier memories with a fresh eye that changes everything. Readers who prefer chronological stories will notice this. That said, though, it’s not difficult to follow the story line.

The Book of Memory is the story of one young woman’s life, and the journey that brought her to prison and a death sentence. It’s a complex journey that sometimes loops back on itself, and it’s told in a storyteller’s way. It takes place in a rapidly-changing society and features a character who’s struggling to make sense of her life, even as she tries to save it. But what’s your view? Have you read The Book of Memory? If you have, what elements do you see in it?


Coming Up On In The Spotlight

Monday, 30 July/Tuesday, 31 July – The Choirboys – Joseph Wambaugh

Monday, 6 August/Tuesday, 7 August – Funeral Sites – Jessica Mann

Monday, 13 August/Tuesday, 14 August – Inside Dope – Paul Thomas


Filed under Petina Gappah, The Book of Memory

21 responses to “In The Spotlight: Petina Gappah’s The Book of Memory

  1. Alex

    This sounds thoroughly absorbing, Margot. I love novels set elsewhere, with unfamiliar characters as we can learn as much about them as ourselves. And here we have a story so set apart from what we know, as to offer an opportunity to learn and understand how other lives unfold. Thanks for sharing this one.

    • The novel certainly shows readers what life is like in a very different part of the world, among people with very different backgrounds, Alex. On that score it is absorbing. And, since Gappah shares Memo’s story in a sort of ‘storytelling’ way, we get to know the way she thinks, as well as the way her culture operates. If you read it, I do hope you’ll enjoy it.

  2. Thank you for sharing what sounds like a powerful read Margot. I do love an unreliable narrator, especially when it isn’t too contrived and from what you say here, there is a good reason for the unreliability in that Memo is going back to childhood and those memories are necessarily overlaid with understanding of events as an adult. Thanks so much for sharing.

    • You put your finger on an important key to the unreliable narrator, Cleo: credibility. If the unreliable narrator is going to work we have to believe the reason for the unreliability. And, in this case, I think it works. As you say, Memo is a child when some of the events she describes happen. So, she doesn’t understand them as she will later in life. What’s more, there are secrets that some people are keeping – things Memo doesn’t know. That, too, impacts her perspective. I think you would like that aspect of the book quite a lot. It’s not at all a light read, but Gappah uses the unreliable narrator to really good effect.

  3. Sounds intriguing and another interesting setting – you do find an amazing variety of books to spotlight! The insertion of ‘foreign’ words does bother me sometimes – depends whether I find them easy to understand from the context, so I was pleased to see you felt they were in this one.

    • It really is a fascinating setting, FictionFan. And, while it’s not at all a light ‘happy’ story, I think it does show the physical beauty of Zimbabwe, and the culture. Oh, and a tiny bit of political history woven in. As to the language, I know just what you mean. If I can understand the meaning from the context, I actually like encountering new words and phrases. If I can’t, then I get pulled out of the story. I didn’t feel they were overused here, and even when the definitions or translations or whatever weren’t apparent, it wasn’t a problem for me to guess at the gist. If you do read this, I hope you’ll like it.

  4. Memory reminds me of a psychiatry-escapee I met in real life, but I don’t know, nor like, the book.

    I think some of us might remember ‘unreliable narrators’ due the suspicion of them being part of the bad guys, or at least part of a twist intended by the author.

    • You have a point, Andrè, that we might remember unreliable narrators more if they are depicted as guilt (or at least, if that is what the author wants us to think).

      • A.M. Pietroschek

        It is the wrong place to ask, but do you know a decently reliable website, where 2k to 5k fiction is written? German settings limit searches, as much is forced-back unto German sites.

        • The only site I can think of, Andrè, is Members of Wattpad post their stories, there, and I believe they are of varying lengths.

  5. I really enjoyed this book – although perhaps enjoyed is not the right word for it, as it is quite grim in places. And yet there is also considerable humour. As with all good unreliable narrators, I completely believed and fell for Mnemosyne’s account of things. There are some unreliable narrators whom I doubt from the outset, which perhaps makes them reliably unreliable?

    • Perhaps it does, Marina Sofia. I agree with you about Mnemosyne, too. She tells her story in a way that makes it very easy to believe. To me, that means Gappah did a very effective job with her character. The book is, at times, quite grim, but I think it doesn’t lose sight of the wit there is in life, and that’s part of what makes it work, at least for me.

  6. Col

    Sounds absorbing, but I’ve probably got enough on my plate at the minute.

  7. Reblogged this on DSM Publications and commented:
    Petina Gappah’s The Book of Memory is in the spotlight in this post from the Confessions of a Mystery Novelist blog.

  8. Sounds interesting and different, Margot. I will put this on a list of possible future reads.

  9. Sounds like an interesting and intriguing read. 🙂

What's your view? I'd love to hear it.

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s