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.

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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.

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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.


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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.

 

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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.

The Verwoerd who Toyi-Toyied by Melanie Verwoerd

I knew nothing about Melanie Verwoerd before I had read this book other than that she was married to Wilhelm Verwoerd and that he had voted for the ANC in the first free elections in South Africa. It turns out she’s far more interesting than I ever knew and is a woman who was strong enough to stand up against one of the most powerful Afrikaans families in history and work hard to defend her beliefs. 

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This autobiography of hers covers two important areas of her life – her marriage to Wilhelm, her divorce, and after that her relationship with Gerry Ryan, an Irish celebrity broadcaster. When she and Wilhelm were students in Stellenbosch in the early 1990s, they joined the recently unbanned ANC – of course they were ostracised by the community and disowned by family and friends, yet they were undeterred by this. Melanie became a parliamentarian working under Mandela, with whom she developed a close relationship. On her and Wilhelm’s first meeting Mandela, Wilhelm tried to apologise for what his family had done to Mandela.

“No,” Mandela said, ‘you only need to remember that with the surname you both carry, you have a voice. People will listen to you.”

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Melanie remembered those words and used them in Parliament. Her accounts of the first non-racial government are fascinating and often surprisingly funny.  She went on to become the South African ambassador to Ireland, where she met Gerry Ryan and started a relationship with him. I didn’t find the part about Ireland so interesting, I’m sure because I don’t know Ireland like I know South Africa, but I found Gerry Ryan to be a bit of an irritating naff and wasn’t quite sure why she fell so inutterably in love with him. Image

 

This book is not about politics, it is Melanie’s story about her life and her beliefs and I ended up admiring her for being a strong woman who stands up for herself. 

Mortality by Christopher Hitchens

I first came across Christopher Hitchens’ writing in the columns and articles he wrote for Vanity Fair magazine. This had two effects – one, it made me realise that Vanity Fair was much more than just a fashion magazine, and two, it made me a fan of Hitchen’s writing.

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Hitchens was a talented journalist, initially in Britain and then America. He was a prolific writer, not only of columns, but also of numerous biographies (ranging from Mother Teresa to the Clintons) and a controversial bestseller, god is not Great (I’ve not read it  yet but will soon), in which he tackles the sensitive subject of religion. His memoir, Hitch-22, was also a bestseller.

Hitchens died in 2011 of oesophageal cancer and Mortality is the short book that he wrote as he was dying. It is a reflection of his thoughts about cancer and death, yet it is never morbid, never self-pitying. There is an underlying chronological order to the text, however this is not account of what-his-cancer-did-next. He writes about religion, about pain, the side-effects of chemo, the knowledge that he might lose his voice – and he was such a vocal man, both literally and through his writings – and many other issues he encountered along the way.

He refers to cancer as being another land, where the cancer patient has leave his old domicile and move to a new country:

The new land is quite welcoming in its way. Everybody smiles encouragingly and there appears to be absolutely no racism. 

He refers to the image that is so often brought up with cancer – people don’t have cancer, they battle cancer – ‘you can beat this‘. He tells, however, that while sitting having chemo dripping into his arm, he felt merely ‘swamped with passivity and impotence: dissolving in powerlessness like a sugar lump in water‘.

He manages to look at his life with such objectivity that I found the book a joy to read. For example, he says:

The absorbing fact about being mortally sick is that you spend a good deal of time preparing yourself to die with some modicum of stoicism…while being simultaneously and highly interested in the business of survival.

I felt sad reading the book, knowing that he was doing to die, but I never felt pity for him. The last chapter is made up of fragmentary jottings that were left unfinished at the time of his death and these, for me, are the most poignant, as they are private insights into a dying man’s thoughts.

Both the foreword and the afterword paint a picture of a man greatly liked and highly respected as an intellect.

In the foreword, Graydon Carter (present editor of Vanity Fair) says Hitchens was, “a wit, a charmer, a trouble-maker, and a dear and devoted friend. He was a man of insatiable appetites – for cigarettes, for scotch, for company, for great writing and, above all, for conversation.”

Carter tells of Hitchen’s enthusiasm when writing for Vanity Fair – how Carter persuaded him to go on a course of self-improvement, which included dental treatment and a ‘sack, back and crack’. Apparently he paled when Carter explained what that was, yet agreed, saying “In for a penny…” (in case you don’t know, it is a wax to remove hair from the back and the other nether regions).

The afterword is written by his wife, Carol Blue, and she write about his larger than life personality, even when he had cancer – amongst others, how he organised a huge family gathering in Toronto for Thanksgiving even when he was sick from the effects of chemo. She tells us that his charisma never left him, his ‘artful conversation’ never ceased. She also writes, however, with the wistful tone of being the one who got left behind.

Christopher Hitchens
Christopher Hitchens

I miss his perfect voice…I miss the first happy trills when he woke; the low octaves of ‘his morning voice’…his last soothing, pianissimo chatterings on retiring late at night. 

I miss the unpublished Hitch: the countless notes he left for me in the entryway, on my pillow, the emails he would send when we sat in different rooms…and when he was on the road.

Mortality was a quick read but I found it to be an intensely personal book at the end of which I felt I privileged to have read it.