Aminatta Forna

The Memory of Love

The Memory of Love

A 2013 nominee for The European Prize for Literature

Winner of the Commonwealth Writer's Prize Best Book Award 2011

The Memory of Love transports us to an African city, where a dying man Elias Cole, reflects on a past obsession: Saffia, the woman he loved, and Julius, her charismatic, unpredictable husband. Arriving in the wake of war Adrian Lockheart is a psychologist new to this foreign land, struggling with its secrets and the intensity of the heat, dust and dirt, until he finds friendship in Kai Mansaray, a young colleague at the hospital. All three lives will collide in a story about friendship, love, war, about understanding the indelible effects of the past and the nature of obsessive love.

The Memory of Love was short-listed for both the Orange Prize for Fiction 2011, the IMPAC Award 2012 and the Warwick Prize 2011; voted one of the "Best Books of the Year" by the Sunday Telegraph, Financial Times and Times newspapers; and was a New York Times Editor's Choice book.

Reviews

"[A] luminous tale of passion and betrayal....Forna knows precisely when to push in and hold our gaze. [Her] sharp eye spares no one its brutal honesty. [Forna] forces us to see past bland categorizations like 'postcolonial African literature,' showing that the world we inhabit reaches beyond borders and ripples out through generations. She reminds us that what matters most is that which keeps us grounded in the place of our choosing. And she writes to expose what remains after all the noise has faded: at the core of this novel is the brave and beating heart, at once vulnerable and determined, unwilling to let go of all it has ever loved." Maaza Mengiste, The New York Times [Read more]

"[E]legantly rendered....[The Memory of Love] rarely addresses war directly, instead embedding it in every sentence. By opening up a shared space for considering the past, Forna makes her world habitable again." Jessica Loudis, San Francisco Chronicle [Read more]

"Aminatta Forna's brilliant new novel takes an oblique look at the Sierra Leonean civil war of the 1990s." Helon Habila, The Guardian [Read more]

"If West Africa has lived through some of the most grotesque episodes of the 20th century, it has also been blessed with several generations of extraordinary writing talents who continue to turn those ordeals into heart-rending literature." Michela Wrong, The Spectator [Read more]

"As Forna's forensic re-inhabiting of the aftermath of the conflict reveals, these wounds may have vivid physical realities, but it is always behind the eyes that they are felt most keenly." Tim Adams, the Observer [Read more]

"Forna weaves an intricate tapestry of betrayal, tragedy and loss; expertly drawing together the threads that link the sick old man, the brilliant doctor with dreams of leaving his troubled homeland, the wounded English psychologist and the young woman who links the three of them in a common bond of love. This is an ambitious project. Forna has written before about the power of storytelling to talk our lives into different shapes. Here she moves deftly between the enchantments of different narratives: the therapeutic, the confessional, the traumatic—flashbacks, nightmares, hauntings, fugue states where stories are lost or distorted beyond recognition and the sweetly joyous themes of new love, renewal, springing hope, second chances." The Telegraph, April 2010 [Read more]

"Aminatta Forna's novel is intelligent, engrossing and beautifully crafted." The Daily Mail [Read more]

"Aminatta Forna's two previous books explored, with elegance and empathy, the conflicts endemic to Sierra Leone. Her second novel continues Forna's examination of unpalatable truths while sacrificing none of her talent as a storyteller." The Sunday Telegraph [Read more]

"Through the complicated connections between characters, Forna explores a country’s history: the violence and chaos of war, the scars, the hope and determination and the uncertainty of rebuilding." The Sunday Times [Read more]

"Forna reveals the legacy of [the war's] damage, viscerally visible in injured bodies, but just as devastating to the mental health of the survivors who were witnesses and victims of a repressive regime. Heartbreaking." Marie Claire

"Forna [assembles] her character with the patience and vision of a chess master, and soon they are locked in an inexorable collision of good and evil and past and present, until we read on hurriedly to see if they will be left with hope." Metro

"The Memory of Love is a beautifully crafted tale of life in Sierra Leone in the aftermath of the civil war.....This is not a book to be read lightly, but one to savour and share." Stylist

"She threads her stories like music, imperceptibly into the reader's consciousness. One is left hauntingly familiar with the distant and alien; not quite able to distinguish the emotional spirits of fiction from the scars of real experience." — Sam Kiley, The Times

Full review from The Times

From time to time one comes across a turn of phrase, a descriptive passage, a metaphor so apt that it rings like lead crystal. Forna doesn't write that way. She threads her stories like music, imperceptibly into the reader's consciousness. One is left hauntingly familiar with the distant and alien; not quite able to distinguish the emotional spirits of fiction from the scars of real experience.

The setting is exotic—Sierra Leone in early postwar recovery. Elias Cole lies in a hospital bed dying. Cultured and eloquent, he now finds a facility for honesty that had eluded him for most of a life of compromise and unexceptional, but ultimately tragic, betrayal. He hasn't been a bad man. He has been an ordinary man who failed to rise to the challenge of the extraordinary times that crowded in on him. An academic, he fell in love with a glamorous colleague's glamorous wife at a time when Africa was blooming with post-independence possibilities, and men were landing on the Moon. Now he chooses to tell a well-meaning and somewhat lost English psychiatrist, Adrian, of how the hope of that age came to have been snuffed out. But, like the ghost of an amputated limb, the recollection of hope lingers.

There will be inevitable comparisons made between The Memory of Love and Chinua Achebe's dystopic Things Fall Apart because, well, things do fall apart—while at the same time Cole flourishes on the betrayal that won him the enigmatic hand of the glamorous Saffia. There are echoes, too, of Graham Greene's own tale of cowardice, Catholic guilt and betrayal, which is also set in Sierra Leone, The Heart of the Matter. But, whereas these masterpieces were set in time and space, Forna's latest novel transcends both by sweeping through from the campus hothouses of the 1960s to a shabby and traumatised today. Time has changed and the space has been burnt, blood-soaked, washed down and whitewashed. In the present we find Kai Mansaray, a young surgeon whose best friend has emigrated to America. He survived the massacres of the civil war by saving lives in his hospital and through good fortune. Now he cannot seem to do the sensible thing and leave too. Instead he paces out his insomnia in Adrian's flat.

Like old man Cole he, too, can remember halcyon days before the war. He can remember loving Nenebah and picnicking in the hills above the university, where the two of them gave names to hordes of baby ants. Perhaps he loves the memory of it.

Adrian, who left a wife and children in England to "help" in Africa, is out of his depth. Through Cole he comes to understand that the roots of the civil war grew in the soil of authoritarianism decades ago (which Cole, the aging academic, embraced as a young man in return for promotion). But he has underestimated the scale of the trauma that civil war can leave behind. How do you counsel a nation?

A chance encounter with Agnes, who goes on to become his patient and who suffers from a compulsion to walk enormous distances, but has no recollection of her journeys, exposes him to the cosmic horror of what went on. She is his redemption, she gives him a focus, a sense that through her he might have a "right" to even be there. As he grows in confidence and relaxes into Forna's beautifully drawn landscape of Freetown bars, cafés and dusty, clogged streets, he falls for Mamakay—not knowing of her connection to either Kai or Cole but gently celebrating the luxury of loving someone.

Forna's characters weave in and out of each other's lives, often with entirely unforeseeable and shocking consequences. They are so well drawn, and so universally authentic, that each time the narrative view switches from one to the other one almost longs for a convenient two dimensional caricature as light relief from possession. With whom can the reader most easily identify? Adrian, the English ingénu? Kai, the heroic surgeon who cannot see the green grass in the other field? Cole, the sell-out? Or Agnes—whose mind has quite rightly opted to walk rather than think about what she must endure?

Forna's intense research into surgery and psychiatry is as lightly worn as her ability to hide her own craft as a writer. Whether the reader is picking through hospital corridors sour and foul with blood and sweat, or blushing at the invisible smirk hidden by local doctors from the visiting Englishman, the stitching is invisible.

Forna's memoir The Devil Who Danced on the Water deals with the harrowing fact of the execution of her father, Dr Mohammed Forna, a leading opposition politician in Sierra Leone. Her first novel, Ancestor Stones, explored the magical capacity of women to survive the worst that mankind can throw at wives, children and daughters. Her latest work, although haunted by real events far away, explores the universal agony of choice. Head or heart? Friend or self? Let us hope that it takes its place where it deserves to be: not at the top of the pile of "African Literature" but outside any category altogether—and at the top of award shortlists.

Sam Kiley

Reviews of non-English editions

Italy

All reviews in Italian.