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.

book-of-memory

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.

Gappah
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.


house

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.

 

AM
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.

Somalia

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.

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The Submission by Amy Waldman

Many books, fiction and non-fiction, have been written about the horrific events that took place on 11 September 2001. In this incredible book, Amy Waldman has used the physical space created by the absence of the towers as the bedrock around which the novel centres; and outward from there, she explores the political and emotional state of America two years after the attacks.

The novel opens with a jury deliberating anonymous submissions for the creation of a memorial at the Twin Towers site. This has been going on for four months and it has been whittled down to two designs – The Void, backed by Ariana, a famous artist, and The Garden, backed by Claire Burwell, the beautiful grieving widow who represents the families who lost people in the attacks. Finally the decision is made and The Garden wins.

Relief all round now that the decision had been made, until the head of the jury opens the envelope with the architect’s name, which turns out to be Mohammad Khan, an American Muslim. When the note is passed around, reactions vary from ‘Oh‘ to ‘Jesus  fucking Christ! It’s a goddamn Muslim.”

So the first domino falls and the novel moves into the effects of the submission on different communities in New York. The head of the jury wants the Khan (Mo, as he is known to his friends) to withdraw his submission and drop out of the competition. Khan refuses to: he is highly ambitious, totally secular and wholly American. He is contentious, for example, he grows a full beard to test the American citizens. Claire supports his design in the belief that it could symbolise healing, others are unsure and some people are vehemently against it.

Divisive groups form: Save America From Islam; the Muslim American Co-ordinating Council, the Grieving Family Members, and different characters emerge around whom the novel builds. Sean Gallagher, who lost a brother in the attacks, becomes the unofficial leader for the families; he wants Khan to withdraw. Then there’s Asma Anwar, an illegal Bangladeshi, who lost her husband in the attacks – he was a cleaner – but because they were illegal aliens, she is not sure who to approach. The Muslim American Co-ordinating Council backs Khan but only on certain conditions. There’s also the beautiful Muslim lawyer, Laila Fathi, with whom Khan has an affair; as well as a sharp, trouble-causing female journalist.

Khan won’t back down; neither will he answer questions in an interview on the intentions and influences behind his design. They would not be being asked if he were not American, he insists. His refusal causes further ructions and speculation amongst the groups.

It is an intriguing read – beautifully written with a sensitivity towards the subject, but with not glorifying it, not taking sides in any way. I have read other reviews where the reader has not liked it, but I think it is well researched and written. It has an underlying tension throughout, as though another attack could happen, or a murder. It made me think about the subject a great deal, and wonder whether America has become more tolerant in any way.

In reality, a similar method was adopted for submissions and, out of five thousand submissions, a man called Michael Arad won for his design of reflective pools. As he is Jewish, that caused a bit of a stink as well, so perhaps America hasn’t moved along much.

Memorial Pool at Ground Zero