With the advent of social media, forgetting can seem like an obsolete danger: Facebook timelines and chat logs have externalized the burden of remembering. But a different and more pernicious kind of forgetfulness looms in Petina Gappah’s first novel, “The Book of Memory,” whose narrator grapples with the threat of erasure.
The none-too-subtly named Memory, an albino woman imprisoned in a bleak Zimbabwean prison, is convicted of the murder of Lloyd, a wealthy white professor. As she awaits the results of her appeal, she pieces her fragmented childhood recollections into a tentative, jumbled autobiography. But the events she recalls resist interpretation, and she is left to make sense of scenes she can neither forget nor explain.
Memory’s relationship with Lloyd is the mystery at the heart of the story. Though the prison guards assume Lloyd was Memory’s lover, Memory insists that he was a sort of adoptive parent. Under his care, she grew up in luxury at Summer Madness, a sprawling estate across town from the impoverished neighborhood where she lived with her parents and siblings until the age of 9.
Memory remembers — or thinks she remembers — passing into Lloyd’s hands when he bought her from her parents. Like so much of her past, this foggily recalled transaction went undocumented: There are no written records, no photographs. Memory’s family, along with her life at Summer Madness, seem “to have emerged complete into the present, without a history.” In stark contrast, she notices that Lloyd’s past — and the history of the British in Zimbabwe — is thoroughly recorded.
Memory is not even bound to her childhood home by the tenuous links of physical likeness: In her community, color is defining, and her albino tone is socially illegible. As a child, she “noted obsessively the different shades” of her family members’ skin. Her preoccupation is not an isolated phenomenon but rather a national fixation shared by her mother and female neighbors. In this color-conscious culture, Memory is an enigma — “a ghost against the others,” more specter than body.
“Like the peppered moth,” she writes, “I adapted to my changing environments” without laying any lasting claim to them. “The Book of Memory” is an attempt to reclaim, by way of reconstruction, a genealogy both personal and cultural, an exercise in self-searching that upends many of Memory’s most deeply entrenched conceptions about herself and her origins.
But these scant philosophical forays are the most nuanced part of a novel propelled almost exclusively by cheap suspense. Its tone, which is self-consciously literary, and its plot, which treats us to the standard bouts of amorous obsession and familial turmoil, are flavorless fare with little lasting force. Gappah’s story collection, “An Elegy for Easterly,” won the Guardian First Book Award, but the partial revelations in this work are short-lived enticements that satisfy few of our deeper narrative appetites.
“The Book of Memory” contains all the elements of made-to-order profundity, copied from the familiar templates: the depressive mother; the isolated, bookish protagonist, scarred by her fraught past; the inoffensively experimental prose. Its characters, a motley crew who practically scream “troubled,” are themes unconvincingly personified. “I longed to be like all the others. I tried to get as dark as the other children. I longed to belong,” Memory clarifies, as if we could’ve missed it. Gappah describes rather than animates, dragging her ensemble from chapter to chapter without allowing its players to move of their own accord.
“I do not mean to sound like I am writing a self-help manual, but your mind truly is the only thing you can control when you are in prison,” Memory muses. But like a self-help manual, Gappah’s book cloaks its aphoristic abstractions in the trappings of shallow lyricism, hoping that we might mercifully mistake melodrama for substance.-NYTIMES
THE BOOK OF MEMORY
By Petina Gappah
276 pp. Farrar, Straus & Giroux. $26.