Category Archives: Petina Gappah

The Book of Memory – Petina Gappah

When I read Petina Gappah’s debut short story collection, An Elegy for Easterly, back in 2010 I was pretty much bowled over by it. Somehow I missed her debut novel coming out last year and so was thrilled when I saw that it had made the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction longlist this year, which as you know I am reading all twenty of. Thrilled. As soon as I managed to get my hands on it I sat and read it straight away and was rewarded from its opening paragraphs until its conclusion.

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Faber & Faber, 2015, hardback, fiction, 276 pages, borrowed from the library then kindly sent by the Bailey’s Women’s Prize

Memory sits in her cell in Chikurubi Maximum Prison in Harare, Zimbabwe having been convicted of murder waiting for an appeal, or if that fails potentially waiting for her death. As she sits and waits she starts to write, in notebooks given to her by a well known journalist, the story of how she came to be in the cell. From growing up in a family where her siblings kept dying through tragedies until the point where she watched her parents give her away in exchange for money to a white man named Lloyd. The man many believe that she murdered.

I could also start by telling you all about Lloyd. I could start by telling you that I did not kill him. ‘Murder’, said the prosecutor who laid out the case against me at the High Court, ‘is the unlawful and intentional killing of a human being who was alive at the time.’
After the police came for me on the night he died, after they arrested me and took me to the police station at Highlands, after I had spent three days without food or drink, after I had wept myself hoarse and my marrow dry – for Lloyd, I told myself, but really it was the fear – and after the dreams started coming again, I told them what they wanted to hear.
Their disbelief exploded in bursts of laughter. ‘Just tell us the real truth. You were his girlfriend and he was your boyfriend. He was your sugar daddy. Just tell us the truth, that you killed him for the money.’

I am a sucker for a novel where you are pretty sure an injustice has been done and you follow the victim of the injustice as they tell their tale and you get the real story. The Book of Memory is one such book, yet it is also very different and unique from others of its type. Memory herself is a really intriguing narrator and also potentially (one of my favourite things) a really unreliable narrator. We know what children’s, erm, memories can be like and sometimes a story that you were told can become part of your memory history in some way, you didn’t witness but you think or are certain you did. There is also the fact that many people who have committed murders claim their innocence, so why should we believe her? This tension runs wonderfully through three quarters of the book, I shall say no more for fear of spoilers.

Yet there is more to Memory’s story than that and as we read on into her childhood, the main one being that Memory was born albino. This brings in a whole new set of elements to the novel. There is the fact that during Memory’s childhood and beyond Zimbabwe is trying to get its independence from the ‘white’ ownership. Memory is African yet in some ways she is seen as a white person, however what also comes into play and in many ways is far, far worse for her is that being albino she is seen as being supernatural and by default dangerous, untrustworthy and scary.

I longed to play on Mharapara with the others but I could not join in. I could not join in because, if I went out and stayed in the sun for any length of time, my skin cracked and blistered. I spent my days indoors with the sound of the township coming through my mother’s shining windows, or I sat and observed them from our Sunbeam-red veranda. And when I did venture out, it was to be greeted as murungudunhu, so that I thought that must be part of my name.

Whilst there is time when this helps, she gets left alone from prison trouble for the most part, overall this is the most defining thing in her life, being ostracised at school, her own mother believing her a curse and then in time, when she studies in Britain, being seen as some sort of sexual predilection to the wrong kind of men initially. I found all this utterly fascinating, whilst often heartbreaking, to read.

Before I get to another highlight, which was the way Gappah plots and reveals various things as she goes, I wanted to share another couple of elements to the book which I enjoyed very much, the prison element. When Memory starts to talk about the other women that she is in prison with there comes a warmth and a element of comedy that I wasn’t expecting in the novel and liked all the more for it. In an odd way, and I mean this as a form of praise, I was reminded of Orange is the New Black as these women share their stories with each other (some very funny, some truly shocking yet told in a clever understated way) and form a camaraderie of sorts which Memory has not experienced before. Even the guards on occasion show a kind side.

What I also thought was rather marvellously done by Gappah was to show how crazy things in Zimbabwe, and indeed many parts of Africa, around the time in which The Book of Memory is set. We don’t have specific dates yet we know this is fairly recent and taking that in to account the fact that myths and magic were so prevalent and used as propaganda I found incredibly bizarre to read. It also gives Gappah another chance to show the very real danger to everyone’s lives was also so absurd, whilst also once again adding a certain humour to the novel, through hindsight which also comes with a bittersweet note of the reality of it.

I watched the news, stunned at the mix of bare-faced lies and superstition presented as fact. A convicted murderer who had been pardoned was declared a national hero. A house was blown up by witchcraft in Chitungwiza. A goblin was stealing women’s underwear in Gokwe. The adverts were all in celebration of the ruling party: I gazed in amused disbelief at the most unlikely figures ever to grace a football field, three big-bottomed women from the city’s oldest and most chaotic township, dancing on a football field in ruling party ‘team colours’. They shook their thighs of thunder as they sang in praise of the ruling party. They danced to the beat of their own oppression.

Finally, as I could go on for ages about this book, I have to mention just how brilliantly plotted I thought Gappah made this novel. There are seemingly throwaway moments which have a deeper resonance later on. She teases you that there are more secrets than meet the eye that will only be revealed just when she wants them to be and then have you puzzling how they affect everything else. She also cleverly uses Memory and indeed memories themselves to show you your prejudices, your assumptive second guessing and how nothing is every clear cut. Can you tell I really, really, really, really enjoyed The Book of Memory? I strongly recommend it.

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Filed under Bailey's Women's Prize for Fiction, Baileys Bearded Book Club, Books of 2016, Faber & Faber, Petina Gappah, Review

An Elegy for Easterly – Petina Gappah

One of my reading resolutions this year was that I would try and read more short story collections. For all my reading life I have avoided them. I think from knowing they are one of the hardest forms to write I worry they will be the hardest to read. I think of them as needing double the concentration as so much is crammed into so little, I also worry that I will muddle all the tales. Petina Gappah’s collection ‘An Elegy for Easterly’ has blown me away, I think it could be one of the best short story works I have read, which is even more impressive given that it is her debut work.

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Petina Gappah’s debut and collection of short stories are fictional tales of her homeland Zimbabwe. Though these are fictional accounts much of the descriptions and facts are very true to life based on what Gappah knows. Now I don’t see very much on the news about Zimbabwe and after reading this I am shocked and quite saddened at that, for it’s a place where things aren’t easy under the regime of Robert Mugabe. It’s also a place that has become slightly unstable since leaving the commonwealth. It’s a place where the rich get richer while the poor get poorer, a place of political regime and corruption which cannot be questioned, a place where aids is abundant and the economy has gone to pot – a loaf of bread costs half a million dollars.

Through the eyes of her characters, or tales in third person we get an insight into some of these situations. A minister’s wife watches an empty coffin being buried in order to stay in line with the president and have a life now her husband is gone in At the Sound of the Last Post. A congregation watch on as a bride marries a man with all the visual symptoms of aids and no one stops her knowing her marriage will also be the death of her in The Cracked, Pink Lips of Rosie’s Bridegroom. In the tale Our Man in Geneva Wins a Million Euro’s we learn the pitfalls of email lottery winners who end up in huge debts. Most tragic for me was the books title tale An Elegy for Easterly which showed how when the Queen visits all the mentally ill, the prostitutes, diseased and very poor are shipped out of towns and into the countryside and the shocking results this has.

With ‘elegy’ in the title you would expect it to be a form of lament; Gappah does throw in humour through some of the wonderful characters we meet such as the marvellous M’dhara Vitalis Mukaro. “When the prices of everything went up ninety-seven times in one year, M’dhara Vitalis Mukaro came out of retirement to make the coffins in which we buried our dead. In the space of only six months, he came famous twice over, as the best coffin maker in the district and as the Mupandawana Dancing Champion.”

To combine all these things and to then fill the tales with such emotion and vividness is incredible and shows the remarkable skill of Gappah. Whats more I have only told you about a few of the tales, there are many more most which deal with the shocking lack of monogamy in marriages and the effects this has health wise, emotionally and mentally. All this in under 300 pages too! It’s frankly a shame we have a few years to wait for her novel, I will without doubt be one of the first in the queue for a copy as I think her writing is incredible. No wonder it won The Guardian First Book Award. I urge everyone to get their hands on this, it’s just wonderful. I don’t think I can say more than that.

Which collection of short storieshas had you feeling like this? Which would you thoroughly recommend me to look out for? I am clearly thoroughly recommending you run and grab this collection right now.

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Filed under Books of 2010, Faber & Faber, Petina Gappah, Review, Short Stories

Snow & The Last Loot

Isn’t it amazing how snow (which we get almost every year) seems to cause no end of issues? It’s only frozen water. Maybe it’s just the northerner in me who had to trek almost a mile to school down steeply inclined hills and back up them daily even if we were 6 inches deep in snow who finds the drama in London a little hard to digest? If anyone has been to Matlock Bath you will know that when I say steep I mean virtually quarried hills. Here is a picture Gran sent me this morning, we used to live on the big hill opposite which is surrounded by valleys which you can’t see sadly but you get the gist.

So I find all the British snowy panic in the press seems a bit excessive, if you’re snowed in you get more time to read and it looks lovely! I am glad though that after two whole days of freezing weather with no boiler I am looking at the snow in the heat once more. The grump that living and working from home in no heat caused you might imagine was quite horrific, but it’s distracted me from the fact I have not been able to buy a book since my last mad loot last Thursday. I thought I would share that with you today. So here are the last books I bought before midnight struck on the 31st of December.

  • The Story of Edgar Sawtelle – David Wroblewski
  • The Late Hector Kipling – David Thewlis
  • DeNiro’s Game – Rawi Hage
  • White Teeth – Zadie Smith
  • Bad Girls – Mary Flanagan

  • Ordinary Thunderstorms – William Boyd
  • Alligator – Lisa Moore
  • An Elergy For Easterly – Petina Gappah (you may notice two here, this is because I will be giving away one to one of you, I am always thinking of you guys)
  • Friendly Fires – Alaa Al Aswany
  • Wild Sheep Chase – Haruki Murakami
  • Cobwebs and Cream Tea’s – Mary Mackie
  • The Queen of the Tambourine – Jane Gardham
  • The Unbearable Likeness of Being – Milan Kundera
  • Scoop – Evelyn Waugh (had this already but not in this orange series I collect)
  • The Lure – Felice Picano

I think a final £6 spree for fifteen books isn’t bad is it? So did I do ok, what books of these have you read and what did you think?

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Filed under Book Thoughts, Evelyn Waugh, Haruki Murakami, Petina Gappah, William Boyd

Simon’s Bookish Bits #2

I think that this might be the last Simon’s Bookish Bits (and its only the third) of 2009 as next Saturday is of course Boxing Day and I will be doing something a little bit festive and Christmas themed. Well I will if the post sorts itself out as I am awaiting some parcels and yet getting some from November instead… interesting. The week after will be all about Bookish Resolutions and of course be 2010, its getting scarily close.

Now as one year starts another one ends. I am planning to give you a full list or two fo my best books of 2009. You can however have a sneak peak of one of my favourites on the Oxford University Press Blog. I was kindly asked by Kirsty, as one of their favourite bloggers, to give a review of one of my favourites along side the delightful company of Vulpes Libris, Dovergreyreader, Kimbofo, Eve’s Alexandria, Random Jottings and Stuck in a Book. Do have a gander it’s a very interesting selection of choices.

Speaking of Kirsty she has written on her blog the list of festive reading she will be partaking in over the festive period. I have also seen festive bookish posts from Paperback Reader and the aforementioned Kimbofo and Simon Stuck-in-a-Book too. One blogger who I know you can help decide what to read over the season, as you are so good at advising me, is Novel Insights. She wants you to help her choose her holiday reads though none are festively themed she has some corkers to look forward too. I have finally whittled down my festive fiction maybes and they will be…

   

Peyton Place and Great Expectations aren’t festive reads, but they are two reads I have been desperate to read for the last few months and I like the idea of something salacious and something truly classic. The last two choices are some Christmas murder and mayhem from Agatha Christie and Agatha Raisin. Mind you I say first, they haven’t actually turned up though some lovely books sent in November have which is nice…

  • Precious by Sapphire (which I want to start now)
  • The Passport – Herta Muller
  • Doors Open – Ian Rankin
  • Firmin – Sam Savage (whose name is a bit too like mine)
  • An Equal Stillness – Francesca Kay
  • An Elergy for Easterly – Petina Gappah
  • The Confessions of Edward Day – Valerie Martin
  • The Complaints – Ian Rankin

Looks like I have some more crime to go. In the world of podcasts it’s a little out of date in parts but my podcast of the week is from Faber and Faber. I only found it yesterday and there were so many podcasts they had I wanted to listen to by some of their top authors it was a gem of a find. Pop to their homepage, scroll down and you can download them all. 

Now finally something not bookish at all but I had to share with you all a little bit of pre-Christmas joy that I have bought myself. I have been looking for one of these for absolutely ages to go on my new desk and finally I find one…

That’s right an original 1980’s dial phone… for £2 and its been converted for new phone lines already. I was ecstatic. Right that is me done and dusted for now. So what’s been going on in all of your bookish worlds this week? What books have you loved? What are you reading at the moment? What’s news?

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Filed under Book Thoughts, Herta Muller, Ian Rankin, Petina Gappah, Sam Savage, Sapphire, Simon's Bookish Bits, Valerie Martin