The Book Of Memory

Sterling Books in Brussels (website, facebook) is one of my favourite places to acquire new books. They have a great selection and friendly, helpful staff, and are perfectly located in the centre of the city. The only thing that could make them any better is if they were to give me free books.

And then one day they did. They posted a photo on their Facebook page of a pile of new novels, with the caption:

“Do you like reviewing books? Do you have a blog dedicated to it?
Then we have just the thing for you!
Here at Sterling we get more review copies than we have time to read and it’s sad to leave them here unread, screaming for attention. (It’s really distracting.)
These review copies are free to a good home, under a few simple conditions:
– Mention (and link to) our Facebook page in your review
– Let us know when the review is up, so we can hear your thoughts and link to your review

I took a look at the pile of books and after a little research made my choice, and went in to collect my freebie (plus one for my wife). I chose The Book Of Memory by Petina Gappah, a new writer from Zimbabwe, only a year older than myself. Her first book, a collection of short stories called “An Elegy For Easterly” won her much acclaim and several prizes including the Guardian First Book Award.

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The Book Of Memory tells the story of an Zimbabwean woman called Memory whose parents sold her to a white man when she was nine. She relates her tale in flashback as she sits in prison, having been convicted of the same white man’s murder. I won’t spoil any more of the story (personally I’m not interested in book reviews which discuss the plot in too much detail) other than to say that we do finally get some answers to the main mysteries: why did Memory’s parents give her away, and how did the white man, Lloyd, really die?

But this is not a murder mystery or a thriller. It’s a story about identity and belonging, and how various characters, for various reasons, are marginalised by society. Memory is an albino, meaning that rather than play out in the blistering heat of the sun all day she prefers to stay indoors and read books or retreat into her own imagination. She becomes educated and has little time for the witchcraft and superstition so fervently believed in by many of her compatriots. She’s witty and thoughtful, generally a fun and stimulating character with whom you’re happy to spend time. Her story splits almost equally between childhood memories and present day descriptions of life in the women’s prison where she’s being held. Both are described equally vividly, with telling details such as sounds and smells.

But finally this is a surprisingly mature story about acceptance, both of yourself and of your circumstances, and about the sometimes futile search for “meaning” in life. It’s a very impressive novel and I expect to hear a lot more about Petina Gappah in the future.