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.

Ten Things I’ve Learnt About Love by Sarah Butler

This subtle debut novel has a central theme of love and loss within relationships and it told from the point of view of two characters, Alice and Daniel.

ImageAlice – a wanderer, a backpacker – returns from Mongolia to spend time with her father who is dying of cancer. Her older sisters, Tilly and Cee, are also in the house, and instantly the sibling’s dynamics start up again – Tilly is sympathetic and warm towards Alice and bakes when stressed, while Cee – a compulsive list-maker – criticises and nags her. Alice has always sensed that their father has shared a secret with her sisters that she doesn’t know about, felt a twinge of exclusion, but also a sense of being protected from that secret. Their mother died when Alice was young, when picking Alice up from her ballet lessons, an event about which Alice has carried guilt for many years. She still yearns for her ex-boyfriend with whom she broke up because he wouldn’t tell his parents about her (I want Kal. I want him to massage the soles of my feet and paint my nails.)

ImageDaniel is a homeless man, a vagrant who searches London for the daughter he has never met, the result of a year-long affair with a married woman. A synaesthete, he sees colours in letters and numbers (‘the letter A is the colour of glacier water…L is gold…I is magenta pink) and creates artistic ‘messages’ out of discarded junk which he leaves on street corners and fences for his daughter. Every year he makes a birthday card for her and posts it, fantasising that she’ll receive it (‘I write your name – I have that at least – but I don’t have an address).

Both characters are compulsive list-makers, always of ten items – this device allows for information to be conveyed to the reader in a quick, easy way, although I sometimes felt it disrupted the flow of the narrative. 

The outcome is fairly obvious, but the book never descends into sentimentality and concludes in an open-ended fashion that remains open to interpretation by the reader. 

A friend of mine found the book disappointing after the reviews she had read about it, but I enjoyed it. It is written with pathos and humour and I sympathised with both characters throughout the book.

A Visit From the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan

Jennifer Egan
Jennifer Egan

I’m often wary of books that win big prizes; hesitant to read them either because I worry that I’ll be disappointed after all the hype, or that I’ll be overwhelmed by their worthiness.

A Visit From The Goon Squad won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 2011 and I don’t know anyone else who has read it yet, so I came to it with a fresh attitude and a liking for its quirky cover. I know they say don’t judge a book by its cover, but I usually do. I’m not often at a loss for words when talking about novels, but this one has left me unsure of how to express what I felt about it. It is an incredible book; unlike anything else I’ve read.

I think Jennifer Egan has perhaps invented a new genre. Some people have likened it to a collection of short stories, however I didn’t experience as such. I found it to be a book with a thread that ran through it, sometimes taut, at other times winding back on itself, sometimes slack. The writing had a rhythm to it that beat through the chapters, with each note tripping on one after the other, each separate but connected to make a concerto.

Egan follows none of the accepted writing rules through this book. She writes in the first person, the plural first person, the third person and even the second person. She writes in the past tense, present tense and future tense. There is no set plot. Different narrative techniques are used, including a journalist’s report on an interview with a movie star (with footnotes included) and, incredibly, a Power Point presentation put together by a teenager about her family, which runs for 74 pages. She writes with a mixture of irony, black humour, poignancy and sadness.

Book cover

And it all works – she has produced a book that is totally captivating and kept me fascinated for hours.

A goon squad often refers to a group of thugs, employed by someone to beat other people up; however the goon in this book is Time. Egan writes: “Time’s a goon, right? You gonna let that goon push you around?” Scotty shook his head. “The goon won.” She studies the effect of time on the characters, on how past behaviours have affected present situations and how present actions might affect future events.

If there are main characters in this book, the two main protagonists would be Sasha, a kleptomaniac, who we meet in the first chapter, and Bennie,her boss, an aging music executive. Tendrils curl out from these two, drawing in other characters, all of whom are related to each other in some way; and thus the chapters gain a rhythm. It sounds as though it may be confusing, but it wasn’t to me. Egan creates each character perfectly. Bennie, for example, sprinkles gold flakes into his coffee in the belief that it will make him more potent. La Doll (a disgraced PR agent) works for a genocidal African dictator, who I’m sure Egan based on Robert Mugabe. The children in the book aren’t cute and innocent; they are shrewd observers of the situations they find themselves in because of the adults around them.

If there were a theme, or themes, to this book, I suppose it would be music and time, and how music changes through the passing of time, yet I feel such a definition would narrow the scope of the book. It is a book that has to be read, rather than explained, as I believe each person’s experience of it will be different.

I certainly have to read it again, as I feel as though I have just scratched the surface of it. I would highly recommend it and would love to get feedback from others as to what they think of it.