A few days ago, in September, Petina Gappah published a shortstory centered on a character nicknamed Zaka and the story ended with a surprise effect. It has an element of crime, and suspense but that is not all about it: it is a story about chess, friendship and boarding school experience. Simply put, the beauty of the shortstory is in its style. It is easy to imagine oneself reading it out to an audience because of its oral beauty.
And, in some ways, The Book of Memory, which is Petina Gappah’s debut novel, shares a striking feature with the abstruseness of the shortstory which is titled, A Short History of Zaka the Zulu. But only that this stunning debut earned Petina Gappah the gift of detailed spaces and that is the luxury of the long form.
The story starts in a reversed flashback, actually “a long-ago day in August when the sun seared [Memory‘s] blistered face,” and Memory, in her words, has just been sold to a “strange man”, a white man called Lloyd Hendrick.
The reader –with a summoned ease in voice that is devoid of slight pity and remorse from the narrator– is introduced into Memory‘s past; a past that involves her adopted father and the “pitiful ugliness” of his death.
In the first chapter, Memory as the narrator –an albino- gives a promissory assertion. She will narrate the incidence of how and why she has been convicted for murder, “I will tell you all about it” she says at the end of the first chapter. She is writing the story on a notebook and we know that the power of the story lies on her but the good thing is that she makes the story more compelling by not giving everything out all at once. The readers will keep yearning for the truth down to the last page. The first four pages confront you with these questions: Did she do it? Why did she do it? If she didn’t why is she accused of murder? What will happen to her now?
Petina Gappah is first a lawyer and then a Zimbabwean writer. Sagaciously, these two facts are represented in the novel as Petina Gappah’s knowledge of law and the language of her country shine through the pages. This novel provides the opportunity to learn a few native words but foriegn readers will find the native names or words hard to articulate too. In the words of Memory, foreigners who have made any connection with the native languages will have something to say about “how difficult the local languages are, how they twist the tongue and confuse the mind” these native languages can be shona and other native tongues in Zimbabwe but here, emphasis is placed on shona.
The life of Memory as a prisoner and her life before reveal an intermingling shuffle of themes ranging from identity, fate, love, loss, politics, life’s paw and others.
Memory’s first nine years of her childhood is spent at 1486 Mharapara Street with her parents and then the next nine years of her life with Lloyd Hendricks before her time in the Zimbabwe’s Chikurubi prison.
Mnemosyne, known as Memory, relies on her unreliable memory to tell a story of her past (in a notebook) which makes up the novel and as the page progresses the incidence that led to the murder is slowly revealed. This is where Gappah’s power of suspense comes to bear its full effect.
Past readers of her works may be familiar with the unemotional narrative, lack of self-pity in the narrator’s voice. This emotional distance of the tone helps the story perfect its telling style: if the emotion ever gets to you as the reader, it will be more of an unforgettable sense of feeling and perhaps a grappling shock.
Petina Gappah won the Guardian First Book Award in 2009, for her short story collection titled “Elegy For Easterly”. Petina Gappah is the first Zimbabwean writer to win the prize and now, perhaps also, the first Zimbabwean writer to be published in the 93 years of New York Magazine’s existence. Petina Gappah’s third publication will be another collection of short stories: Rotten Row. And Rotten Row will be published in the U.K. by Faber & Faber in November.
It is easy to note that Mnemosyne‘s struggle as an albino is the struggle of many African children born in the same way. It is not only the constant glaring eyes of being different or sometimes seen as a curse but also, “fearing always the heat of the sun, and the smell of Mercurochrome”.
Being different in her color defining community, Memory has always wished to be invisible, “I spent much of my life trying to be invisible. But I was never truly invisible. Even in London, or Sydney, where I should have blended in with everyone, the world’s gaze came with a double take. On the surface, my skin looked like everybody else’s, but seen closer, my features are very obviously not Caucasian. I could feel the puzzlement on the face as the mind tried to work out what was different.”
I don’t know of any African novel that has ever been told from the angle of an albino. Petina Gappah has once again accorded us this rare moment of thoughts; to halt and reason, to experience life, aided with a first hand-tecknique of a crafty virtuoso: to feel what it feels like to be born this way, to be sold by your parent.
This might be the first African novel that shows us the experience of an albino, particularly, one accused of murder with a startling suspense that is as revealingly slow, adorned with a legato spaciness like nothing you’ve ever read before. Gappah possesses a certain topnotch storytelling mastery that can only be weilded better in a long form. And this debut earned her that rare liberty to be at her Gapaesque effect: To use dazzling is truly an understatement. This novel is Gappah’s finest yet.
When Basit Jamiu is not writing or surfing the net, he is reading J. M. Coetzee, V. S. Naipaul, Toni Morrison, Naguib Mahfouz and other greats too numerous to mention. He likes to eat, a fact you will find so hard to believe particularly if you are meeting him for the firsttime. He is @IamBasitt on twitter.