Memory is an albino black woman, the only woman on death row in the maximum security prison in Zimbabwe. She writes the story of her life, her childhood with her birth parents in a poor township, the way she was shunned by others because of her appearance and over-sensitive, sunburnt skin. She remembers with shame and hostility that her parents sold her to a white man called Lloyd Hendricks, who raised her like a foster daughter and paid for her education. Yet it is her foster father whom she is accused of killing, so we follow with a sense of foreboding the events leading up to that fateful day, as they are gradually revealed to us. Is Memory the most reliable narrator, though, or is memory itself a malleable substance that we can change and reinterpret as it suits us?
Petina Gappah’s debut novel is a richly evocative portrayal of full of a township childhood in Zimbabwe just before and after independence: the colours, the smells, the food, the voices and native languages (including untranslated Shona expressions that you have to guess from context), the gossip and superstitions.
Our house, all our houses, had rickety doors and thin, thin windows that shook as the doors were opened and closed, and shook even harder when my mother banged them. There was a small garden around our house; there we had a banana plant. Our neighbours had half-attempted orchards with mango trees and, occasionally, naartjies… MaiPrincess and her family … had a large avocado tree and wanted to keep each avocado to themselves, but we did not always give back the fruit that fell and rolled under the tarpauling covering my father’s wood and tools. We mashed up MaiPrincess’s avocadoes and spread them on bread.
The story moves between past and present, between childhood in the townships and then in an upscale white suburb of Harare, and life in Section D (for ‘Dangerous, for Deadly, for Death’) in Chikurubi Prison.
Prison life is sombre, of course, especially in a poor country, but there is much humour in the interaction between the women prisoners and their guards, the malapropisms of Verity the fraudster and prison guard Patience, the arguments and practice sessions for their appearance in court, their commentary about life as they see it.
The biggest surprise about prison is the laughter. There is laughter to go with sudden quarrels; there is malice and gossip along with acts of generosity… It is not possible to sustain one emotion for too long. It is too taxing on the mind to always be angry, or always sorrowful.
Here is Patience berating the inmates in English, for she is training to become a court interpreter:
‘Irregardless of the absence of water, you should make sure the hoarse pipes are connected. You must make sure your plates and bowels are clean.’ ‘You have the wrongful number,’ she screamed into her phone the other day, ‘I said this is the wrongful number!’
Despite these lighter-hearted moments, the story is predictably sad. The part of the book where Memory grows up, leaves the country to study and work abroad, and then returns to her foster father’s home was too sketchy for my liking, too short compared to the build-up preceding it. At 270 pages, the novel is not very long and the author could have taken her time to recreate Memory’s adulthood and return to Zimbabwe with as much care as she has done for the childhood and school years. Perhaps the author wanted to avoid making the novel too political. The outside world is perceived mostly through the eyes of the deliberately uninformed fellow prisoners. (Their newspapers are censored, with all the criminal and court news, the political sections and business news cut out). There is a brief mention of opposition parties and upcoming elections, and a bit more about forcible seizure of land from whites, but it’s the women’s irreverent reactions to politics and public policy which are most memorable.
There is a project funded by the European Union that is persuading women to give up prostitution in exchange for working together on a co-operative farm. The thought came to me that they should call it the ‘Hoes for Whores’ programme. I could not keep a straight face as Jimmy explained that she was only doing this as long as she has to report to the parole office. ‘As soon as they forget about me, I will stop. They are insane, these Europeans. Like I can’t get more money in thirty minutes on my back than a month on my feet.’
Memory herself is an enigmatic character, a blend of cultural influences, a mix of advanced education and narrow-minded prejudices, desperately unsure of her exact place in the world yet occasionally bordering on arrogance. Her apparent lack of remorse about Lloyd’s death did not greatly endear her to me, although I felt sorry about her ‘outcast’ status as a child.
I’ve seen the bubbly, exuberant Petina Gappah in action at the Morges Literary Festival in September, and this book is as unforgettable as its author. There is much poetry and richness here, as well as a keen sense of setting with rumblings of race and ostracism and a country undergoing tremendous change.