I’m a bit behind with my reading plans, as I’ve unexpectedly been doing a lot of extra hours at work after someone left. Until their replacement starts, I’ve been handed all their authors and their workload to deal with, along with my own, although the end does seem to be in sight, even if it’s still a bit blurry and far away. A large glass of wine every night, chased down with a double G&T, is keeping the stress under control (no helpful remarks from doctors/nutritionists needed, please).

Away from work, I’m attempting to clear the decks before I start mostly reading novellas from 1 November (#NovNov). I have lots of novellas in the pile(s) I posted a week or so ago, so I’ll be delving in there, and I’ve even bought a couple of extras to boost the stacks (the stacks didn’t need boosting). Then from late November to the end of the year I’m jumping into Turkish culture for what I’ve designated “Turkey month”, but what other people might think is simply the period between US Thanksgiving and Christmas. So I’ll be reading and reviewing a lot of Turkish books plus taking a look at Turkish art, film, TV and music ((the lengths I’ll go to use a bad pun!), and if you’ve read or reviewed work from Turkey I’d be delighted to read your thoughts if you link them in my comments after 25 November and until Christmas.

Anyway! I’ve read and reviewed a fair amount of Zimbabwean fiction over recent months, and The Book of Memory is the latest addition to that list. Author Petina Gappah was born in Zambia to itinerant Zimbabwean parents, and grew up largely in Zimbabwe, though as an adult she has lived in various countries, including the UK, Germany and Switzerland (where she worked as a lawyer), although she has now returned to Zimbabwe. The Book of Memory (2015) was her first novel.

The book is set in contemporary-ish Zimbabwe in the women’s section of the notorious Chikurubi Maximum Security Prison in Harare, where Memory, a young albino woman, is awaiting execution for the murder of her foster parent/guardian, Lloyd.

Memory recounts details of the horrors and everyday indignities of prison life, interspersed with her account of growing up with her mercurial mother, loving but sad father and her siblings. Her childhood has been traumatic, with the deaths of two siblings and her own (mis)treatment for her albinism, followed by a later separation from her parents, whom, when the novel opens, she has not seen for many years.

This is because at the age of nine she was sold, or so she believes, to wealthy, white academic Lloyd, with whom she goes to live on his luxurious estate, Summer Madness (I love this name). Lloyd’s support (he seems to be a genuine, nice guy, with no inappropriate intentions toward Memory) enables her to attend a private school and receive a graduate and post-graduate education in Europe. But one day, after she has returned to live with Lloyd at Summer Madness, he is found dead, and Memory is duly arrested, found guilty of his murder and sentenced to death.

However, the country’s economic collapse has led to a shortage of hangmen, and she languishes on death row, where she gives her monologic account of what happened. Or what she believes to have happened, as we can’t be sure to what extent Memory is a reliable narrator, and the uncertainty of memory is a major theme. The protagonist’s name is a not-so-subtle clue to this over-arching theme, although a useful website tells me that Memory is a very popular name in Zimbabwe (where 1 person in every 390 shares the name), so it’s not as forced as it would be if set in the UK. Fears of a family curse also pervade the book, and albinism is still a condition that can attract prejudice in some parts of Zimbabwean society.

The book is saved from a surfeit of introspective gloom by Memory’s wry sense of humour, and I was interested to read on to uncover the mysteries of Memory’s background and the circumstances of Lloyd’s death, in a book that also shines a light on issues pertinent to Zimbabwe and the wider continent, such as its rampant homophobia (which was also referenced in Tendai Huchu’s Hairdresser of Harare), inadequacies in the justice system and economic problems.

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  1. I’ve read and should have reviewed this book, ages ago. Before that, I read her first collection of short stories, An Elegy for Easterly, which I really liked, and I have her second collection, Rotten Row, TBR.

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