An albino woman in Zimbabwe recounts the unlikely story of how she ended up on death row, in a debut novel from Guardian First Book Award winner Gappah (An Elegy for Easterly: Stories, 2009).
Two years after Memory is convicted of murder, she records her life story for an American journalist in hopes it will help win her an appeal. At the age of 9, she writes, her parents sold her to Lloyd Hendricks, a white university professor who lives in tony Umwinsidale, far from the crowded township of Memory’s youth. At Lloyd’s, Memory devours books, rides horses, and, after a dermatologist helps heal her blistered skin, becomes “just another girl.” But almost two decades after they first meet, Lloyd ends up dead in his swimming pool and Memory is imprisoned, left to sort out how it all transpired. The scope here is ambitious. Gappah takes readers across racial and economic lines and sets Memory’s complex upbringing against 30 years of Zimbabwean history. Her protagonist is equally complicated: erudite, unreliable, winningly mordant (she jokes that there’s so much oil in the prison food “you almost fear that America will invade”). But Memory’s a coy narrator, too, withholding information even after circumstances would indicate she’d reveal it. “Then Zenzo entered our lives, and everything wilted,” ends a typical chapter, but who Zenzo is and how he relates to Memory’s incarceration isn’t explained until many pages later. This is especially confounding given the nature of her mission: if Memory’s goal is to offer a sympathetic portrait to a journalist, why be deliberately mysterious? By novel’s end, most questions are answered, but readers may feel frustrated at the Byzantine path they traveled to get there.
Gappah’s elaborate tale is intricately plotted, but her determination to build suspense ultimately saps the narrative of some much-needed momentum.