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The setting for this story is a hospital in Freetown, Sierra Leone, soon after the government has declared an end to an 11 year civil war. How can people come to terms with the terrible things that have happened? Actually, can they come to terms with those things?
Adrian Lockheart is an English psychologist who is finding his professional training and experience rather inadequate in a country where almost everyone is suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. His colleagues refer patients when they are not sure how to help them, the patients are confused by not being offered medicine, and most don't come back. So he has plenty of time to listen to the memories of a terminally ill man, Elias Cole. He also becomes friendly with Kai, a young surgeon.
At first I found this novel a little confusing, as it shifts between past and present and between different strands of the story. Forna's writing is beautiful though, and I was gradually drawn into his world and the contrasting perceptions of Adrian and Kai in the present of the novel, and Elias in the past. It is a novel about thoughts and emotions - love, lust, sadness, grief, rather than action.
Elias tells his story in the first person, a story of betrayal and disappointment. I was interested in the portrait of university campus life and politics in the late 1960s and early 1970s, but I found the other two main characters much more engaging, as Elias comes across as rather self-absorbed and selfish. Saffia, the woman he is obsessed with, remains shadowy as we only see her through his eyes. She is married to his friend and colleague Julius, and one day both Elias and Julius are arrested and interrogated. Elias later marries the widowed Saffia, but doesn't find the happiness he expected. I thought it was interesting that, while in some novels the first person narrative brings us closer to characters, it was used here by the least sympathetic of the three main protagonists.
Adrian and Kai are a study in contrasts. Adrian seems to have come to Sierra Leone because it offers an escape from his life in England and his unhappy marriage. Kai has seen many of his friends and colleagues leave Sierra Leone, notably one who writes to him from the US. He has stayed for a long time, but now he has made up his mind to leave.
The civil war and the political violence and repression which affected the country for a long time before it are the background to the story rather than the foreground, but The Memory of Love raises some important questions about the extent to which such a conflict can ever be over. How can Agnes, one of Adrian's patients, forget her experiences of rape and witnessing murder, especially as she returned home after some time to find her daughter married to one of the killers? Such shocking examples brought home to me the tragedy of the war in Sierra Leone.
In contrast to the poverty and violence, and the ailments Adrian and Kai are attempting to treat, are the stories of Adrian's love affair with the beautiful singer Mamakay, and Kai's earlier relationship with his childhood sweetheart Nenebah. These are beautifully written and again, more compelling for me than Elias Cole's account of his relationship with Saffia, but they are hard to discuss without revealing too much of the plot.
Aminatta Forna was born in Britain - her mother is Scottish and her father was from Sierra Leone - he was a doctor, politician and government minister but was killed in the 1970s. She spent her early years travelling between an English boarding school and her stepmother's home in Freetown, and although she now lives in England, she still spends a lot of time in Sierra Leone. She has written a book about finding out what happened to her father, The Devil That Danced on the Water, and her first novel, Ancestor Stones, is also set in Sierra Leone.
I have been meaning to read her books for ages and bought this one as soon as it came out in paperback, shortly before it was longlisted for the Orange Prize. I always look out for the Orange Prize as I love to read literary and other fiction by women, and have been trying to read as many longlist titles as I can since March, so that was an extra excuse to pull this one out of my overflowing boxes of books. It has since been shortlisted, and I would love to see it win although I think this year's short and longlist have been very strong. I hope to get to her other books some time this year.
I talked to my colleague from Sierra Leone about this book - apparently Dr Forna was her mother's doctor - I've now lent her the book.
A version of this review has appeared at www.thebookbag.co.uk where you can also read reviews of the other 5 Orange Prize shortlist books and 14 more longlist titles.
Formats: Hardback, paperback and Kindle
Paperback RRP £7.99; available at Amazon £5.42 pb, £4.88 Kindle