Two books about prisoners: A Book of Memory and A House in the Sky

This has not been an intentional reading theme; it just so happened that I read two books in a row that were about prisoners. The first was a novel, The Book of Memory, by Petina Gappah, and the other was a memoir,  A House in the Sky, by Amanda Lindhout, co-written with journalist Sara Corbett.


Petina Gappah won The Guardian First Book Award in 2009 for her collection of short stories, An Elegy for Easterly. The Book of Memory is her first novel and it is a powerful story of a Zimbabwean woman sitting on death row for the murder of her adopted father, a rich white man. It had been waiting on my Kindle for a long time; I’m not sure why I didn’t get round to reading it sooner because the opening sentence alone is enough to captivate one:

The story that you have asked me to tell you does not begin with the pitiful ugliness of Lloyd’s death. It begins on a long-ago day in August when the sun seared my blistered face and I was nine years old and my father and mother sold me to a strange man.

Memory is an albino woman who grew up in a poor township, spending her childhood being teased and bullied by other children, playing with her siblings, and avoiding the sun. This book is her way of remembering and interpreting her past, and of trying to gain an understanding of why her life followed the trajectory it did, leading up to her sitting in prison as the only woman on death row. Memory’s narration skips from past, to present, to way, way back, to the immediate, and carries on circuitously, as memory itself does.

Petina Gappah

It sounds like grim stuff, which of course it is, but Gappah has created the most wonderful character in Memory, whose voice is suffused with humour and a marked lack of self-pity. I enjoyed every minute of the book –  the plot itself, but also Gappah’s writing – her descriptions are so vivid that I could imagine the prison, almost taste the mangoes and smell the dusty Zimbabwean roads. Never is Memory’s albinism used as a pity-point, though when it’s brought into the text, it brings home the awfulness of the condition,  with the descriptions of her skin blistering and bubbling, and the merciless teasing from others. In the same way, the murder of which she is accused is not the central pivot of the book and we only find out about it right towards the end because this is not a book about an albino, nor one about a murderer; it is, as the title says, a book of memory.


A House in the Sky is also about a prisoner, though this time it is the true story about a young Canadian woman who was kidnapped and held hostage in Somalia with her ex-lover for 460 days. Amanda Lindhout also grew up poor, squashed into rooms with her siblings, listening to her mother being beaten up by a younger boyfriend. As a means of  escape, Amanda would buy old copies of National Geographic – with money from scrounging for recyclables – and lose herself in the photos of strange and exotic countries.

Once old enough, she waitressed in high-end clubs to save money to travel and as soon as she could escape, she ventured into countries she’d always dreamed of visiting in South America, Africa and Asia. The book starts off a bit like a travelogue, with accounts of Amanda’s travels to various destinations, none of which are ‘easy’ countries to visit. After travelling on and off for a couple of years, while waitressing in between to save money, she visits Afghanistan and Iraq and starts a semi-career as a war journalist, albeit a very naive one.


Amanda Lindhout


In the beginning, in an attempt to ingratiate herself to the captors, Amanda persuades Nigel to convert to Islam and, for a while, this tactic works as she is treated with respect and taught the Koran. Her kidnappers are young, and unfamiliar with women, especially Western women, and she describes them in such a poignant way I almost started to feel sympathy for them. After an escape attempt (for which Nigel believes she must take the blame), however, her captors begin to torture her through isolation, rape and beatings. In a vividly described section, she is even taken to the desert one night and is led to believe she is about to die, as a man holds a serrated knife to her neck.


Amanda survives by creating ‘a house in the sky’ and escaping to happier places in her mind when her body is being treated worse than an animal’s. With an incredible inner strength, she manages to reach a place of understanding and empathy for her captors. Although she and Nigel are kept separate, they remain in touch by leaving notes in the bathroom and even creating Christmas presents for each other out of scraps of rubbish.

They both are freed after their families manage to raise a fraction of the amount of money initially demanded and Amanda begins to piece her life together again in Canada. She has started a philanthropic NGO to enable women in Somalia to get to university and, when asked why she would want to help people in the very country where she was taken hostage and abused, she replied:

“You can very easily go into anger and bitterness and revenge thoughts and resentment and ‘Why me?'[…] Because I had something very, very large and very painful to forgive, and by choosing to do that, I was able to put into place my vision, which was making Somalia a better place[…] I’ve never questioned whether or not it was the right thing to do[…] What else to do after the experience that I had, than something like this?”  

This memoir reads as smoothly and beautifully as any good quality novel, and I felt privileged to have read it, to have been given an insight into such an intimate, frank account – yet devoid of self-pity – of a woman’s experience to hell and back. Amanda Lindhout is an incredible woman to have been able to go through this experience and to survive it with forgiveness and goodwill in her heart.

Even Silence Has An End by Ingrid Betancourt

This is one of the most incredible books I have ever read, and I have read many. I had vaguely heard of Ingrid Betancourt before I read the book and knew that she had been a hostage who had been released a couple of years ago, and that was about it. Now I know she is a woman who endured six and half years in the Columbian jungle as a hostage under the harshest conditions and was eventually rescued by the Columbian army.

Ingrid Betancourt was a presidential candidate in Columbia in 2002 when she was kidnapped and taken hostage. She had been going to fly into a military-controlled region, but her place on the plane was cancelled and, as a result, she was driven there. She never made her destination. As a candidate, she was aware of the risks of potential kidnapping and remembered being given advice once: if the men are wearing leather boots, they are the army; if they are wearing rubber boots, they are FARC (a guerrilla organisation in conflict with the government). The men who took her were wearing rubber boots. One of her assistants, Clara Roja, was kidnapped with her.

They was driven further and further into the jungle, till eventually they got out of their vehicles and walked into the depths of it until they reached a temporary camp. Here they got their first inkling what life as a hostage was going to be like as they were put in a small enclosure with a mosquito net as a roof and a bed to share. Later on they were moved to a bigger camp along with other hostages.

There isn’t space here to mention the number of times they had to move camp, march in the pouring rain, deal with biting wasps, mosquitoes, bees. The conditions were horrific, but the psychological elements were the more difficult to handle for Betancourt. She and Clara soon began to irritate each other in such a confined space and, once they were with other hostages, she found they all began to vie for food and attention. The guards had complete control over them physically and psychologically and played with them, cruelly.

Ingrid tried escaping three times, each account of which I found fascinating. The determination it must have taken to attempt to flee into an unknown jungle with no sense of where she was heading, with very few resources, made me admire her determination and self-will. I suspect I would have wilted, slid into depression and done whatever the captors wanted. Ingrid stood up for herself all the way, often making herself unpopular with other hostages (two of the American hostages have since written a book in which they criticise her behaviour and how she got beneficial treatment).

What I found so interesting about this book was the relationship between the guerrillas and the hostages – what they allowed the prisoners to have or not, like giving Ingrid a dictionary when she asked for one, or baking a cake in honour of her daughter’s 17th birthday. How some of them almost became friends with Ingrid. How cruel they were to the hostages. Ingrid was often chained up, especially after her escape attempts. Chained around the neck, and either to a tree or another hostage. One particular guard who didn’t like her, always tightened the chain around her neck so that she could barely swallow. She still has faint marks on her neck from the chains.

In the book, she explains how one of the most difficult things was having to face herself – often she found she didn’t like her behaviour towards the other prisoners when she became spiteful, greedy or hateful. Slowly she worked out that she could choose to be how she wanted to be, and from then on tried to remain non-judgemental. I honestly don’t know how she managed it. I don’t think I would have been able to.

One of the things that kept her going was the radio which the prisoners were allowed (amazingly, I think) to listen to. Once a week there was a slot in which the hostages’ families were able to send them messages and for six and a half years, ingrid received messages from her mother – who didn’t even know whether Ingrid was alive any more. The strength of the love between them kept Ingrid going through the worst times (of which there were countless).

Towards the end of her captivity she became extremely ill with hepatitis, at a time in which the guerrillas were marching them further and further into the jungle to escape the army. She was so ill that she often had to be carried by the guerrillas, some of whom were very kind to her and others of whom treated her like a sac of potatoes. Some of the other hostages resented that she was getting special treatment.

In the end, Ingrid wasn’t released by the guerrillas but rescued by the army who deceived the leader of the camp into believing that they were FARC officials coming to take some of the hostages to another area. Ingrid and a few of the others were rushed into an airplane and once on board heard the incredible words, “You’re free”.

In so many ways this is a horrific read with the details of the experiences of a political prisoner held in utterly inhumane conditions, but in so many other ways it is an incredible story of strength and courage. Next time I think I’m having a shitty day, I’ll remember Ingrid Betancourt.