Welcome to another edition of In The Spotlight. The unreliable narrator has been an element in many crime novels. When it’s done well, that question of whether the narrator is being accurate/truthful can add to the suspense of a story. Let’s take a look at a case of unreliable narrator today and turn the spotlight on Petina Gappah’s The Book of Memory.
As the novel begins, a young albino woman named Mnemosyne, who’s usually known as Memory, or ‘Memo,’ is beginning a letter to a journalist named Melinda Carter, who has a history of exposing miscarriages of justice. Mnemosyne is in prison in Harare, convicted of the murder of her adoptive father, a white man named Lloyd Hendricks. In Zimbabwe, a murder conviction carries with it a mandatory death sentence. But, there’s been a change of government, and there is a chance that Mnemosyne may escape the death sentence if she can appeal her conviction. Her lawyer has suggested that she tell her story, and hopefully show that her case doesn’t warrant execution. And sending the story to a well-known journalist is a way to make her case public.
With that, Mnemosyne begins her story. She tells of her childhood with her parents, her brother, Givhi, and her sisters, Joyi and Mobhi. The family has little money, but at the same time, they aren’t desperately poor. Because Mnemosyne is albino, some people in the village consider her cursed. Others simply won’t accept her. But, for the most part, the family manages, and Mnemosyne discovers a love of books and learning.
It’s not a happy family, though. Mnemosyne’s mother, Moira, has troubling periods of depression. Her father tries to hold the family together as best he can, but it’s not easy. Everything changes when Lloyd Hendricks meets the family. As Mnemosyne puts it (she is nine at the time), her parents sell her to Hendricks, and she goes to live with him and his household. And, no, before you head towards the obvious conclusion, it’s not a case of trafficking. Promise.
For the next nine years, Mnemosyne lives with Hendricks. She attends a private school and does well enough to get a good university scholarship at Cambridge. After some time away, she returns to Zimbabwe, not exactly sure what she’s going to do with her life. And that’s when Hendricks dies. Mnemosyne is promptly arrested, and it’s not long before she’s found guilty. There seems to be a motive, too, since she was set to inherit the house. And there’s a witness who saw her with the body.
Mnemosyne’s only hope is to tell the entire truth – the whole story of her life and of what happened – so that she might have a chance to be released, or at least, to have her sentence commuted. And that’s what she does.
The story is told from Mnemosyne’s point of view (first person), so we see things through her eyes. And that’s what adds in the factor of the unreliable narrator. Some of the incidents she shares take place during her childhood, so they’re remembered and told through a child’s eyes. And, as the story goes on, we learn that there are several things about the family, about Hendricks, and about other things, that Mnemosyne didn’t know at first. Those secrets have also distorted the story of what really happened, both to Mnemosyne and to Hendricks. As readers learn the truth, it becomes clearer that things are not at all as they seem. And, as Mnemosyne learns the truths she either never knew or wouldn’t acknowledge, we see how much of a toll the secrecy has taken on her.
The story takes place in Zimbabwe, and Gappah places the reader there in several ways. There are several uses of local words (everyone’s different, but I didn’t have difficulty guessing at the words from context). There are also underlying cultural beliefs that are explored, and that play their roles in the story. There’s also some history mentioned in the story, as some major changes took place in Zimbabwe during Mnemosyne’s lifetime, and she’s aware of them.
The solution to the mystery of Lloyd Hendricks’ death isn’t a happy one. Saying much more about it would, I think, spoil some important effects. Suffice it to say that the real truth is very sad. At the same time, there is some wit in the story, as Mnemosyne reflects. At one point, for instance, she’s describing one of her fellow inmates, who’s in prison for fraud relating to a charity she set up:
‘…the term ‘political violence’ is to donors what Pavlov’s bell was to his dogs.’
Mnemosyne is incisive and thoughtful, and she is able to sometimes find the (somewhat dark) wit in things.
This is the story of Mnemosyne’s life, so it sometimes weaves back and forth a bit, between her childhood, and her current life in prison. And, as the layers are pulled away and the real truth about Mnemosyne’s life is revealed, she returns to some of those earlier memories with a fresh eye that changes everything. Readers who prefer chronological stories will notice this. That said, though, it’s not difficult to follow the story line.
The Book of Memory is the story of one young woman’s life, and the journey that brought her to prison and a death sentence. It’s a complex journey that sometimes loops back on itself, and it’s told in a storyteller’s way. It takes place in a rapidly-changing society and features a character who’s struggling to make sense of her life, even as she tries to save it. But what’s your view? Have you read The Book of Memory? If you have, what elements do you see in it?
Coming Up On In The Spotlight
Monday, 30 July/Tuesday, 31 July – The Choirboys – Joseph Wambaugh
Monday, 6 August/Tuesday, 7 August – Funeral Sites – Jessica Mann
Monday, 13 August/Tuesday, 14 August – Inside Dope – Paul Thomas