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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Good Girl Wants It Bad by Scott Bradfield

I hadn’t read anything by Scott Bradfield before or even heard of him, although I read in a review that he is considered a star in the literary world by his peers. That, of course, made me feel ignorant.

The cover

The first thing that struck me about Good Girl Wants It Bad was its cover – alluring; sexy, a hint of what lies within. Within, we meet Delilah Riordan (called Lah) who is in the West Texas Women’s Penitentiary on death row. Lah is a nymphomaniac who has been charged with murder and torture in Connecticut, California, New York, Idaho and Texas, as well as a few European countries. She is a serial killer who is gorgeous – ‘hotter than Texas asphalt’ – apparently irresistible to men, which lands many them in all sorts of trouble (and a nasty death).

We meet Lah through her daily journal as she counts down to her execution. She is not a nasty, rebellious multiple murderer; Lah is cheerful, naive and dutiful in prison. She writes, “I want to express my basic good nature as a human being, which has been overlooked by all the press reports I’ve read.”  Armed with the knowledge of her innocence, she attends Rehab Chat sessions with Dr Reginald and Confrontational Analysis with Dr Alexander; through these sessions we, as readers, are exposed to the horrors of the crimes she allegedly committed.

Bradfield has created an intriguing character in Lah. She is complex, self-delusional, psychotic, uses her body to her advantage, and humourous. She is also a desperately sad woman, with a history of sexual abuse, who gives birth in prison and has her daughter taken away from her. “Never give up, little daffodil, Mommy loves you very much,” she writes, haunted by the fact that her daughter is somewhat out there and will learn down the line that her mother was a serial murderer. Lah has a boyfriend, Manuel, (you need to decide whether he is imaginary or not), and often writes about, “my Little Secret” who she believes will help her escape from prison. She adores her father, who is in a coma in hospital, and only sees his ‘love’ for her when she was little as totally normal.

“You can’t be a good girl unless you have the choice to be a bad girl, as Daddy used to say. And vice versa.”

‘Fans’ from the public writes to Lah (isn’t it strange how people are drawn to prisoners on Death Row?). She receives a series of them from Oliver, a boy in sixth grade, who would like help with his Social Studies project, but who also finds her very beautiful and requests photos from her. The correspondence between them continues until Oliver’s father sends an irate letter to Lah, freaked out by her behaviour. Rhonda Merrivale writes to her asking for “information on your severe personality disorders”, as she finds herself having fantasies of killing her husband and oldest child and wants to know if these are normal.

Bradfield maintains Lah’s voice well throughout, and never gives us too much detail about the murders. I experienced a few misgivings about Lah – I found it unbelievable that she was so hot that no man could resist her. Her naivety and self-delusion were overplayed in places, although I supposed it is psychologically possible for someone to be so cut off from reality. However, the count down to her execution works well as a narrative device and a sense of urgency builds as Lah writes a last letter to her daughter, hours before she has to walk down Death Row.

All in all, though, I enjoyed the book as it was so unlike anything I’ve read in a long time. It was sad, poignant and funny; not what I would have expected from a novel about a prisoner on Death Row.