• 2002
  • Atlantic Monthly Press (USA), HarperCollins (UK)
  • Hardcover, Paperback, Kindle, iBook, Audio
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The Devil that Danced on the Water, a memoir

An evening in 1974 when she was ten years old, Aminatta Forna opened the door to two men, members of the state secret police, come to take her father. A year later he was killed.

The Devil that Danced on the Water is Aminatta's search for the truth of her father's fate, moving and terrifying in turns, always compelling, it traces events leading to the moment of his arrest. And what happened after he was taken away.

Aminatta Forna's luminous memoir is a vivid and passionate account of an African childhood, of an idyll which becomes the stuff of nightmares. As a child she witnessed the upheavals of post-colonial Africa, danger, flight, the bitterness of exile in Britain and the terrible consequences of her dissident father's stand against tyranny.

Mohamed Forna was a man of unimpeachable integrity and great charisma, who quoted Alexander Pope: 'Honour and shame from no condition arise: Act well your part for there the honour lies.' As Sierra Leone faced its future as a fledgling democracy, he was a new star in the political firmament, a man who had been one of the first black students to come to Britain after the war. Already a political firebrand and a stylish dresser, he stole the heart of Aminatta's mother to the dismay of her Scottish Presbyterian parents and returned home, one of those Wole Soyinka has called the 'Renaissance generation.' But as Aminatta Forna shows with compelling clarity, the old Africa was torn apart by the new ways of Western democracy, which gave birth only to dictatorships and corruption of hitherto undreamed of magnitude. It was not long before Mohamed Forna languished in jail as a prisoner of conscience and worse was to follow.

Aminatta's search for the truth that shaped both her childhood and the nation's destiny begins among the country's elite and took her to the heart of rebel territory. Determined to break the silence surrounding her father's fate, she ultimately uncovered a conspiracy that penetrated the highest reaches of government and forced the nations politicians to confront their guilt.

The Devil that Danced on the Water is a book of pain and anger and sorrow, written with tremendous dignity and beautiful precision: a remarkable story of a father, a family, a country and a continent.

Awards and Honors

The Devil that Danced on the Water, a memoir of her dissident father and of Sierra Leone, was runner up for the Samuel Johnson Prize 2003, chosen for the Barnes & Noble Discover New Writers series and serialised on BBC Radio and in The Sunday Times newspaper.

Reviews and Praise for The Devil that Danced on the Water

"Aminatta Forna [has done] something no one else did. She wrote a memoir that is not exactly a memoir, which means it's the best kind of all—an original work made out of necessity.

...She is without self pity. She writes prose that is dispassionately clear. She tells what happened and why without the self-dramatising chiaroscuro of victimhood.

We could say that Forna set the record straight. Or that she made a detective story out of personal pain. We could place her memoir alongside Nega Mezlekia's Notes from the Hyena's Belly, about Ethiopia, or Rian Malan's My Traitor's Heart, about South Africa. All these remarks would be accurate enough, but they would fail to capture what The Devil that Danced on the Water most certainly is: a masterpiece that makes sense of the senseless." Lorraine Adams, The Washington Post

"Forna has written a book that is impossible to forget, or to confuse with any other memoir of tyrannical times....This is an obsessive, driven, refreshing book about Africa, despotism and exile. It is also a beautifully drawn portrait of childhood, and the ruses, stratagems, and sheer bloody-mindedness that Aminatta used to keep her young self safe, and sane in a world ruled by murder, marriage and constant movement.

The Sierra Leone Aminatta Forna loves, and the father she lost, seem gone beyond recall. But she glues them back together from a few sharp shards of memory. It is the recourse of the abandoned child, writing back into life what has been taken away. The result is a memorial teeming with life, and anger, love. It is built on the fierce determination that the best service she can pay her father is to remember him back into existence; to track down every dying or lying witness she can find, and prize from them details of what happened—at his trial, in the condemned cell, on the day of his execution.

This doesn't make The Devil that Danced on the Water a dispiriting book. On the contrary, it lets in light. It is a triumph of life against the odds. And in its conclusion there is a sanity that is, simply, majestic." Christopher Hope, The Financial Times

"Harrowing...Forna writes with a compelling mix of distance and anguish, intent on explaining her father's death and reclaiming his memory. Lush descriptions of her idyllic childhood provide eerie counterpoint to the chilling depictions of the hell Sierra Leone had become upon her return in recent years...Reminiscent of Isabelle Allende's House of the Spirits, Forna's work is a powerfully and elegantly written mix of complex history, riveting memoir and damning expose. Publisher's Weekly (Starred)

"Late one night when Forna was 10, her father—a Sierra Leone doctor and popular former cabinet minister—was taken from their home and executed in a government attempt to quash democracy. But this isn't a political book. In the first part of this moving memoir, Forna brings her family to life, in both their idyllic ups (family gatherings in Freetown) and incongruous downs (living in a camper in her mother's native Scotland).

In the second, shorter section, Forna, now a British journalist, returns to her father's homeland looking for the truth behind his death. Instead, she discovers the story of a nation's demise. "How fragile life is in a country like this," she writes. And how lucky the reader who sees it through her eyes." People Magazine

"In 1975, Mohammed Forna, a doctor and leading Sierra Leone dissident was executed for treason. A quarter century later, his daughter, who was ten when he was arrested, began to investigate his death. Her lucid, exacting memoir recounts indelible scenes: in bed with malaria, she watches a soldier ransack her room; when her stepmother goes to plead for her father's life, Aminatta asks her to get the President's autograph. She interviews the men who gave false testimony against her father, and discerns in their matter-of-fact responses a "lack of expectation" that defines life in Sierra Leone after decades of violence. In a telling episode, her stepmother takes pity on one of these witnesses, who is now destitute, and hires him as a cook. The author wonders if it is in this way, "together under the same roof" that she and her countrymen must learn to live with the past." The New Yorker

"Riveting...Memoir seems to soft a word for Aminatta Forna's The Devil that Danced on the Water...The intimacy of a child's domestic world contrasts acutely with the looming political backdrop. Mohamed Sorie Forna was the kind of young man upon whom a society's hopes are built." Eve MacSweeney, Vogue

"An African memoir unlike any before it." The Economist

"While so many memoirs seem an exercise in group therapy, Aminatta Forna's unforgettable childhood story, The Devil that Danced on the Water, stands out as a shining example of what autobiography can be: harrowing, illuminating and thoughtful.... Forna's compulsion to learn what happened to her father in the "first ten years of her life and last ten years of his" is so intense and personal it transcends what are sometimes dizzying political machinations....Her filmic language, descriptive metaphors and close observations of the natural and human landscape of her childhood can take your breath away and leave you punched in the gut....Forna's memoir, though set in an exotic and appallingly brutal locale, teaches not only about a pivotal moment in Sierra Leone's history. The Devil that Danced on the Water also reminds us of the need to face our own lost innocence—then move on so we can work for a better future." Ayesha Court, USA Today

"The first ten years of her life and the last ten years of [her father's] are the subject of this remarkable book, in which Aminatta Forna, now a journalist and broadcaster in her late thirties, sets out to discover the truth about her father's death and in the process retrieves her own early history of confusion and loss....The two extraordinary stories—one personal, the other political—that emerge are heartbreakingly dissonant. It is Forna's achievement to cleave to this dissonance, to hold it tightly in spite of its sharp edges....In writing this book she, too, has acted her part well. She has lifted out of herself the emotional and cultural world of her childhood and represented it in scenes of startling beauty and tragedy. Few books merit being called courageous; this one does." Rachel Cusk, The Evening Standard

"Forna's memoir is reminiscent of Wild Swans, Jung Chang's acclaimed 1991 account of how three generations of women in her family survived the political turbulence of China in the 20th century. As Chang did with her native country, Forna provides a peek into the black hole of time, giving a view of so much of Africa that is mythical, ephemeral and intangible.

'For a moment at the a moment at the crest of the hill I had a rare and brief view of the vast acres of forest,' she writes. 'They were lit by the morning sun: undulating, steaming, seductive. The only sign of life was the smoke drifting here and there across the tops of trees. In that instant I saw this country of mine through the eyes of the stranger I had become, glimpsed the exotic Africa the first Portuguese and British traders must have seen. Ours was a country of immeasurable beauty, at once full of promise yet riven with unknowable perils.'

That may be the most important part of this daughter's quest: telling the story not only of Africa's political turmoil but also of its promise and potential." Charlotte Moore, Atlanta Journal-Constitution

"A deeply affecting and beautifully written book which transcends the sordid story of a power-hungry, murderous and corrupt regime. For all the sickening and harrowing details of African despotism, it emerges as an uplifting and marvellously readable memoir." Justin Marozzi, The Financial Times

"The Devil that Danced on the Water deserves to go on the shelf next to [Rian] Malan's. It's excellent." Aidan Hartley, Literary Review

"Forna spent much of her childhood shuttling between her European mother and her Sierra Leonean father, an almost impossibly principled and courageous man who rose to become minister of finance in 1968 by navigating the maze of alliances and enmities that constitute African politics: tribal loyalties, personal grudges, and battles for the control of the diamond trade. His popularity and integrity were a threat to the corrupt and dictatorial administration, and in 1974, he was framed and tried for treason. In this heartbreaking memoir of Forna's quest to find the truth about her father, she outlines the grim prospects of a poor and largely illiterate populace that still suffers the legacies of colonial exploitation, the misguided concept of 'benign dictatorship,' and a brutal civil war." Emily Mead, Entertainment Weekly

"This is a remarkable personal story of lies, greed and corruption amidst the cultivation of fear and violence that marked an increasingly malevolent dictatorship....her book provides one of the best views into the kinds of politics that make otherwise prosperous countries like Sierra Leone into metaphors for all that is wrong with a continent beset with more than its share of misrule. She shows that Sierra Leone's catastrophe is not inadvertent. She does this is a story that humanizes culprits (for whom she shows little sympathy) and the ordinary people who live with the result of this political horror.

Forna offers a human account of Sierra Leone's tragedy that does much to remedy a media image of a faraway country that suffers a bizarre fate at the hands of rebels." William Reno, Chicago Tribune

"At once impassioned, lucid, and understandably enraged, The Devil that Danced on the Water illuminates a troubled, tragic history of a country and a continent. It helps us understand how the faraway events we've grown used to seeing on the nightly news—the violent coups, famines, mass murders and migrations—affect the lives of individual men and women, of parents and children, of families just like our own. Francine Prose, O Magazine

"Among those who place hope in remembering is Aminatta Forna. She details her courageous search for the story of her father, a victim of the nation's deadly politics, which predated its civil war by several decades...Forna capably fills in the events of Sierra Leone's complex and confusing history....When Forna loses herself in the bittersweet memories of her childhood, her descriptions dance on the page....By sharing the travails of her vivid journey, she casts light into the darkness of Sierra Leone's history." Heather Hewett, The Christian Science Monitor

"This engaging memoir is the story of a collapsed state, Sierra Leone....It can be read as a detective story, the account of a young woman's search for the truth about the murder of her courageous politician father....Aminatta Forna captures well the boredom and drift of Seventies England, the casual racism and diminished aspirations, the squalor of the streets and the bad food. The first half of the book is written as if through the child's eyes. The observations have an appropriate strangeness and wonder, and there are moments of humour....In Sierra Leone she finds "no law, no justice, just the legal trappings of a corrupt colossus that moved unhaltingly forward, engulfing everybody in its wake." And the more she discovers about her father, the more she understands his powerlessness in the face of the inevitable slide into corruption and dictatorship.

The Devil that Danced on the Water is an impressive contribution to the literature of post-colonial Africa, the mysterious continent that continues to resist all attempts to remake it in a Western image." Jason Cowley, The Times, Book of the Week