Petina Gappah’s An Elegy for Easterly caused quite a stir when it was published back in 2009. Lots of rave reviews, then it won the Guardian First Book Award, but aside from commissioning a review for the magazine I was working on I ignored it. Short stories, you see. More fool me, if The Book of Memory is anything to go by. Within the first brief paragraph, Gappah manages to hook you with both a grisly death and the announcement that our narrator was sold to a strange man by her parents.
Memory is an albino black Zimbabwean on death row for the murder of Lloyd, the white man she went to live with when she was nine years old. She’s writing her story for an American journalist known for championing miscarriages of justice. Teased and shunned as a child, she listens inside her ramshackle home while the other children play their games, her skin too sensitive for the fierce sun. Hers is a family struck by tragedy leaving her mother unpredictable in her grief and Memory haunted by nightmares. When she’s asked to dress in her best clothes, she’s filled with joy then astonished when she’s introduced to a white man who hands a wad of cash to her mother. The following day she’s taken to his home, a beautiful old colonial house. She yearns to see her father again, but becomes used to the trappings of this new life shrugging off the racist rants of Lloyd’s brother-in-law and becoming immersed in books, still puzzling over why Lloyd has bought her from her parents and why they gave her up. Escaping the fallout of estrangement and betrayal from her first infatuation, she wins a scholarship to Cambridge. On her return all seems healed between her and Lloyd then one day she comes home to find him dead. Writing her story from her cell, she dredges her memory for answers to questions that have troubled her for years. Towards the end the whole sorry tale of what befell her parents and how she came into Lloyd’s care is unravelled.
Gappah teases out the threads of Memory’s past, slowly revealing her story, warning us that ‘It’s hard for the truth to emerge clearly from a twenty-year fog of distant memory’ then delivering a devastating denouement. Within the framework of Memory’s gripping story, a multitude of well-aimed barbs are shot at modern Zimbabwe. White society clings to its old colonial ways holding their June garden parties in the midst of the Zimbabwean winter. The superstitions of black culture which shuns Memory for her difference and brings misery upon her poor mother are lampooned. The corruption of the country’s political establishment unable to acknowledge the dire state of its prison is graphically conveyed in Gappah’s vivid word pictures. All this served up with a helping of acerbic humour in the form of prison banter and Memory’s acidic wit. It’s a very impressive first novel but not one likely to be published in her native country.