THE MEMORY OF LOVE by Aminatta Forna
“And when he wakes from dreaming of her, is it not the same for him? The hollowness in his chest, the tense yearning, the loneliness he braces against every morning…Not love. Something else, something with a power that endures. Not love, but a memory of love.”
Review by Betsey Van Horn (FEB 14, 2011)
Incalculable grief cleaves to profound love in this elaborate, helical tapestry of a besieged people in postwar Freetown, Sierra Leone. Interlacing two primary periods of violent upheaval, author Aminatta Forna renders a scarred nation of people with astonishing grace and poise–an unforgettable portrait of open wounds and closed mouths, of broken hearts and fractured spirits, woven into a stunning evocation of recurrence and redemption, loss and tender reconciliation. Forna mines a filament of hope from resigned fatalism, from the devastation of a civil war that claimed 50,000 lives and displaced 2.5 million people. Those that survived felt hollowed out, living with an uneasy peace.
Over 99% of people suffered from unrelieved post-traumatic stress disorder, and those that survived often hid shameful secrets of forced betrayal. Here you have children, now adults, trying to cope after their brutal coercion with rebel soldiers. They are living with the aftermath of “nothing left to lose.” If you can imagine an unspeakable atrocity, it was likely executed. Blood on the hands of the people who remain seep into the pores of the newly arrived.
Three principal characters form the locus of this story–a psychologist, a surgeon, and an academic. The story goes through seamless temporal shifts–from 1969, a period of unrest following a military coup–to 2001, following ten years of civil war begun in 1991.
Adrian Lockheart is a British psychologist on sabbatical from his failing marriage to accept a (second) post in Freetown. He is compassionate and dogged in his pursuit to treat the population of mentally disturbed and traumatized citizens, to help them find hope and resolve, yet he feels emotionally dislocated from his own family at home.
“The truth is that since arriving here his life has seemed more charged with meaning than it ever had in London. Here the boundaries are limitless, no horizon, no sky. He can feel his emotions, solid and weighty, like stones in the palm of his hands.”
Adrian treats tortured men and women in the fallout of war, finding a particularly poignant interest in Agnes, a woman who is suffering from a fugue disorder. He contends that the endless miles she compulsively roams on foot (and subsequently forgets) indicate a search for something meaningful from the ruins of war. He believes she is going toward somewhere, a place he determines to find out.
Adrian’s most prominent patient is the unreliable narrator, Elias Cole, an elderly, retired history professor dying of pulmonary disease. In this city of silence, Elias is compelled to tell his story, his confession, to Adrian. It begins in 1969, when Elias first laid eyes on Saffia Kamara, a charming and comely botanist married to the gregarious, fearless Julius, an academic at the university.
“People are wrong when they talk of love at first sight. It is neither love nor lust. No. As she walks away from you, what you feel is loss. A premonition of loss.”
Julius, Elias, and Saffia embark on a friendship that inextricably points to the destiny of the next generation. The military coups of the late 60’s followed Sierra Leon’s hard-won independence from the British colonial rule. Political unrest led to widespread paranoia, which in turn led to wobbly allegiances. Elias’s confession to Adrian is the rallying point, which heightens all the other narratives. Adrian’s probing of Elias reaches to encounters outside of the hospital, and will alter the course of his life, and too of the story.
Lastly, there is Kai Manseray, a talented, young orthopedic surgeon, a tireless and tormented man plagued by chronic insomnia and a suppressed and devastating history. Kai chose to stay and help the damaged and impoverished, rather than abscond two years ago with his best friend, Tejani. He is torn between his loyalties in Sierra Leone and his desire for a more elite station in the States. The woman he loved has gone, the city ravaged, the people embattled, but his little cousin, Abass, and the patients who need him keep him anchored. He has secrets that he won’t share with anyone, that threaten to undo him in the operating theater.
As the story highlights the contrast of their professions, Kai and Adrian form a tenuous bond of friendship. Kai’s achievements are measurable–stitching, sewing, patching, cutting, and saving lives. Adrian, however, can’t measure his patients’ success with an X-ray or point to approximated edges of a wound. Psychotherapy is a process of encounters, wending your way through the dark channels of a person’s interior and facilitating change through conversation. Kai and Adrian’s bond is ultimately the most hypnotic, with consequences encroaching on the dark side of hope.
Forna constructs a mesmerizing collision of forces and people that slowly propel the reader toward a towering climax. This story is for the committed reader, the patient literature lover who will undertake many hours of dedication for the inevitable reward. Think of a blank canvas, and every sentence as a mindful brushstroke, a bloom on the page. It takes a while for the picture to materialize. The writing is carefully crafted, and yet imperceptibly so, not in the least self-conscious. She is steadily augmenting, fuller and deeper, contrasting the light and the darkness, capturing nature and sound. Even her secondary and tertiary characters are wrought with polish and care.The story’s leisurely pace builds its emotional cathedral one stone at a time; at about the halfway point, it becomes riveting and impossible to turn away.
This is a personal and natal undertaking for Forna, whose father, Dr. Mohamed Forna, was a dissident in Sierra Leona and was killed on trumped up charges when she was only eleven-years-old. Her non-fiction book, The Devil that Danced on the Water: A Daughter’s Quest, is the story of her search for the truth of that harrowing time. She continues her exploration of healing and recovery in this deeply researched and ambitious novel.
There are coincidences in The Memory of Love that nevertheless do not disturb the beauty or the impact of the story. In lesser hands, this may have come across as artifice. However, Forna’s characters and themes are ultimately grounded, and the patterns that emerge from the disparate stories–the unguarded moments, the link of love that ties all the characters together–transcend her intention. The potency of storytelling and the refrain of love in the aftermath of tragedy is evident and sublime in her fluent prose.
“There exists, somewhere, a scale for love invented by one of his [Adrian’s] profession…And there are others still who say love is but a beautiful form of madness.”
The injured voices of her characters mesh into a voice of hope and holding on, to a startling story of redemption. At various intervals, the lyrics of Jimmy Cliff’s “The Harder They Come” drift onto the page. It sang, I sang.
“Well, they tell me there’s a pie up in the sky…The harder they come, the harder they fall.”
Love endures. One and all.
February 14, 2011 · Judi Clark · No Comments
Tags: Friendship, Grief, Identity, Loss, love, Political, Sierra Leone, Violence, War Story · Posted in: 2011 Favorites, Africa, Commonwealth Prize, World Lit, y Award Winning Author
Born in Scotland in 1964, Aminatta Forna moved to Sierra Leone with her Scottish mother and Sierra Leonean father when she was six months old. She travelled widely while growing up, including time in Iran, Thailand, and Zambia. She studied Law at University College London, before working for the BBC in the 1990s, making programmes as a reporter and documentary maker. Her first book, the memoir The Devil that Danced on the Water, appeared in 2002 and was shortlisted for the Samuel Johnson Prize. She has since published three award-winning novels: Ancestor Stones (2006), The Memory of Love (2010), and The Hired Man (2013). She is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature, and was awarded an OBE for services to literature in 2017.
Aminatta Forna writes through and beyond personal experience to speak to the wider world in subtly constructed narratives that reveal the ongoing aftershocks of living through violence and war.
—Windham-Campbell Prize citation
Aminatta Forna’s works explore the historical, cultural, and emotional repercussions of societies that have experienced conflict. Her first three books – The Devil that Danced on the Water (2002), Ancestor Stones (2006), and The Memory of Love (2010) – are set in Sierra Leone. The Devil that Danced on the Water recounts Forna’s search for the men that killed her father, who was wrongfully hanged in 1975 for treason against Sierra Leonean dictator Siaka Steven’s government. It offers an incisive and moving account of her father’s life and death, while bringing to light the historical background to the civil war that wracked the country from 1991 to 2002. Ancestor Stones tells the intertwined stories of four women, all cousins, whose different mothers were in a polygamous marriage with patriarch Gibril. Set in an unnamed West African country that closely resembles Sierra Leone, the novel is an exploration of family, history, and female agency. The Memory of Love is an intergenerational story of passionate obsession and betrayal, set in pre- and post-civil war Sierra Leone.
In her most recent novel, The Hired Man, her geographical focus shifts to Croatia, inviting parallels between how it and Sierra Leone have negotiated the aftermaths of their largely contemporaneous experiences of civil war. In her own words:
I wanted to move the action beyond the African continent and into the west, where I would invite readers to reconsider some of their assumptions about wars all over Africa.
Forna unsettles readers’ preconceptions, both by such acts of unexpected transnational comparison, and by telling the stories of those marginalised from public view. Her meticulously researched books often feature ordinary people buffeted by historical currents beyond their control, allowing readers to engage emotionally in individual lives while gaining perspective on a broad canvas of societal change.
—Graham Riach, 2017
Cite this: Riach, Graham. “Aminatta Forna.” Postcolonial Writers Make Worlds, 2017, https://writersmakeworlds.com/aminatta-forna/. Accessed 27 February 2018.
The Angel of Mexico City (eBook, 2014)
The Hired Man (2013)
The Memory of Love (2010)
Ancestor Stones (2006)
The Devil that Danced on the Water (2002)
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