The Memory of Love by Aminatta Forna (Sierra Leone)

I’ve read 11 books so far this summer, and this review of Aminatta Forna’s 2010 The Memory of Love is review number 8.

Forna was born in Scotland to a Scottish mother and Sierra Leonean father. However, she spent much of her childhood in Sierra Leone, where her activist father was murdered by the authorities when she was 11 (and which she has written about in her memoir, The Devil that Danced on the Water).

Forna’s novels are often interested in how people deal with trauma (I’ve previously read her 2018 novel, Happiness), and The Memory of Love, published in 2010, is no exception, set in an unnamed Sierra Leone, against a background of lives marked by unrest and civil conflict.

The story has a dual timeline, each featuring an intense love triangle. The first thread of the story focuses on the memories of a dying man, Elias Cole, who was employed as a university historian in the late 1960s. Cole becomes infatuated with the wife of his charismatic senior colleague Julius, and Cole’s rivalrous relationship with Julius and obsessive pursuit of Saffia ultimately has an enduring and devastating impact on all their lives.

Cole willingly pours out his narrative to a visiting English psychiatrist, Adrian Lockheart, who is ambitiously, if rather naively, seeking to heal the post-war traumas of his Sierra Leonean patients, in a country where he is eventually told “”99 per cent of people are suffering post-traumatic stress disorder” – and where those people, in contrast to Cole, have largely adopted silence as a survival technique.

Cole is not necessarily a reliable narrator, but nor is Lockheart: he has abandoned his wife and daughter to pursue his ambitions, in what increasingly feels like an attempt to run away from life in the UK. The contemporary section forms the book’s second thread, in which Lockheart experiences his own tumultuous relationships while in Sierra Leone, developing close connections he develops both with troubled orthopaedic surgeon Kai Mansaray and with an attractive young woman, Mamakay.

I found this to be a compelling novel, which is thoughtful and neatly plotted, as it examines the stories people tell themselves in order to survive, the painful legacy of war, and the nature of love.

The Memory of Love won the Commonwealth Writer’s Prize Best Book Award 2011.

They by Kay Dick (UK)

I read They by Kay Dick (published in 1977) as one of my 20 books of summer (this is no 7, and I’ve nearly finished books 8 and 9, though that still leaves a lot of reading for August!).

I’m quite fond of dystopian fiction, and this novella has been ‘rediscovered’ after being out of print for many years. I found it completely impenetrable, however, though it was mercifully short (I feel I write these words too often!). I was expecting a coherent novel, which would hang together as a single narrative, but this isn’t what we get: instead it’s more like a loosely themed bunch of short stories.

There are weird similarities with the Russian novel We that I co-incidentally read earlier this summer (not as part of an intentional dystopian theme). They shares the unspoken sense of menace, the characters have a similar lack of agency and, again, there is that constant looming threat of consciousnesses being hijacked and memories removed by a repressive ‘Other’. Dick was gay, so it’s hard not to read it as a response to the repressiveness of English society at the time.

The characters are constantly in fear of the arrival of a nebulous, murderous anti-intellectual mob. ‘They’ hate single people and people who live alone, they hate artists, they hate writers and they really hate needlecrafts.

However, the sentences were so staccato and so drained of description that I couldn’t get a handle on any character or any of the locations or action. The characters epitomize the English middle-class of the time (and don’t actually seem all that intellectual or bohemian, though that’s the look they’re going for): they drink tea and eat cake A LOT and go for walks and sometimes spot ‘them’: the menacing, murderous, encroaching anti-culture mob. (It reminded me a bit of Brexit!) Onwards and upwards…

Your Ad Could Go Here by Oksana Zabuzhko (Ukraine)

Translated by Halyna Hryn/Askold Melnyczuk/Nina Murray/Marco Carnnyk/Marta Horban.

This is a collection of short stories from Ukraine, published in 2020, and many published elsewhere separately from 1998 (the majority since 2017), which no doubt explains the long list of different translators. It was book 6 of the 20 books I’ve set myself the challenge of reading this summer.

Short stories aren’t my favourite form of fiction, and I found most of these quite difficult to engage with. Zabuzhko’ sentences are long, sometimes bewilderingly long – several Kindle pages long! Many of the stories feel like fables or fairy tales, written in purple prose, and dealing with female familial rivalries and insecurities – mums and daughters misunderstand each other, sisters fight over men.

There was a good story (An Album for Gustav) on the Maidan protests in 2014, the first sign to most in the West of Ukraine’s definitive break with the Russian political sphere of influence. This story was written in an ironic style, flagging up the ignorance of Western commentators and the patronising diplomats in their views on this hitherto fairly little-known ex-Soviet state, the people of which were regarded as some kind of “Albanian-Belarusians”. It also captured the excitement and fervour of revolution (although, as you can see, with Zabuzhko even text in parentheses can go on and on – I cut off the quote long before the end bracket!):

“…and then suddenly you hit this current, a massive underwater gulfstream, and it grabs you and carries you with impossible speed, with a thunderous, might roar (The sound! That’s what’s missing from these pictures, damn it! The round-the-clock hum of the crowd, the clapping thunder of chants that echoed from the buildings’ walls and reverberated to the far shore of the Dnieper and, after several days of insomnia, began to rumble inside your own head…”

The title story, alluding to the merciless obliteration of the past by encroaching capitalism and simple human greed, is also great. But mainly I found this book a bit of a plod, though I had been very keen to like it: Zabuzhko was awarded the Shevchenko National Prize in 2019, Ukraine’s most significant state prize for works for art and culture. 

Claudine’s House by Colette (France)

Translated by Andrew Brown

Claudine’s House was book 5 of my 20 books of summer. Published in 1922, it form part of my side project to read books from 1922 throughout 2022. Historically, 1922 was a momentous year. I recently read Nick Rennison’s 1922: Scenes from a Turbulent year, published this year, which gives a brilliant overview: this is the year the USSR was formed, the Ottoman Empire fell, the post-Spanish flu pandemic ‘roaring ’20s’ got under way and, in publishing, ‘peak modernism’ was reached. Books published in 1922 include both Ulysses (which I keep eyeing warily) and the Waste Land. And this engaging sort-of memoir by Colette.

Lots of people have pointed to the book’s charm, as it evokes Colette’s childhood summers in a French country house, replete with puppies and kittens and hair fastened with ribbons. Through a series of short vignettes, life with her fluttering mother Sidonie, her one-legged army captain father and her three eccentric siblings is vividly conjured up.

There is nothing of world events in the book, though amid the charm there is some sadness. Sidonie is devastated by her estrangement from Colette’s emotionally intense older sister following her marriage (Colette’s family were unable to honour their financial commitments under the marriage contract), and that cast a long shadow over the book for me. Especially when I learnt from Wikipedia that the sister committed suicide at the age of 48.

The most enjoyable bits, for me, focus on the animal life:

Nonoche the tortoiseshell had given birth to kittens two days previously, and Bijou, her daughter, the following night … Filled with happiness, I sorted out these nursing mothers and their well-licked nurslings, fragrant with hay and fresh milk and well-tended fur, and I discovered that Bijou, four times a mother in three years, bringing to her teats a chaplet of newborns, was herself sucking, with the clumsy noise of her over-large tongue and the purring of a chimney fire, the milk of old Nonoche lying inertly there, taking her ease with one paw over her eyes.”

I can read French, but read this in English through deeply ingrained laziness. I have to say though that the cover of my secondhand Hesperus Modern Voices edition from 2006 is rubbish: it shows a girl with a face of abject misery gazing out balefully from a step, and screams misery memoir rather than bucolic bliss.

We by Yevgeny Zamyatin (1884-1937, Russia)

Translated by Bela Shayevich

We is a classic work of dystopian fiction, described by Ursula le Guin as ‘the best single work of science fiction written’, and book 4 of my 20 books of summer ’22. Reviewed by George Orwell in 1946, it apparently inspired or at least informed 1984.

Completed in 1921, We was banned by the newly established Soviet Union, deemed, in Orwell’s words, ‘ideologically undesirable’ until 1988. It is set in the 26th century, in OneState, a perfect society where the authorities have made use of a mathematical formula to ensure the happiness of its inhabitants. Along with the rational precision of mathematics, comes the loss of any sense of individuality or personal freedom. In charge is the semi-divine Benefactor, a totalitarian leader who is voted into power each year by unanimous agreement (or else), and oversees a society that is always punctual and clean, with perfect blue skies and full employment.

People no longer have names, but are identified by number, and live in homes that are transparent boxes, all the better for the state to keep an eye on them. Sexual relations take place on state-sanctioned, hormonally appropriate occasions, arranged with the allocation of a pink ticket at pre-determined times during which the curtains are permitted to be briefly lowered.

The book’s protagonist, D-503, is a talented engineer, who has been working on a new space craft, the Integral, which is designed to allow the culture of the OneState to be disseminated more widely.

He is a committed worker and compliant member of society until he meets the sexy I-330 who secretly drinks and smokes, never turns up when she says she will, and who begins to sow a seed of revolutionary zeal in poor D-503, who is starting to experience feelings he never knew existed, and shows signs of an undesirable ‘soul’.

Written as a series of diary entries by D-503, the style is quite difficult, and the book is nowhere near as readable as 1984, Brave New World or, for that matter, Dave Eggers’ The Circle, but this is an intriguing and influential book and I’m glad to have read it.

In Memory of Memory by Maria Stepanova (Russia)

Translated by Sasha Dugdale

“And you see only those who stand in the light.

While those in the darkness nobody can see.”

Bertold Brecht

This extraordinary book, like its subject matter, is difficult to pin down. A blend of philosophy, travelogue, memoir, cultural criticism and group biography, it is book 3 of my 20 books of summer – I’m at various stages with several others – and has been short-listed for various prizes, including the International Man Booker (though it is not really fiction, or only in the very faintest of senses) and the James Tait Black prize for biography. Published by the always interesting indie Fitzcarraldo, and beautifully produced as ever, it opens with the death of an aunt, and a discussion of the detritus accumulated over a lifetime: photos, books, old clothes.

Stepanova (a renowned Russian poet and journalist, and editor of the temporarily silenced online journal Colta.ru) wheels off through the history of her Jewish Russian family, and the troubled history of the 20th century, as well as the nature of memory itself. Often the personal history that she seeks to investigate remains shadowy and occluded – sometimes due to deliberate obfuscation by her family, desperate to survive in Soviet Russian – but her writing is so beautiful that i was happy to go along for the ride.

“With every new selfie we take, every group shot or passport photo, our lives become arranged into a chain of images, a history which is quite different from the one we tell ourselves and want others to believe. The line of was-and-will-be, a compendium of single moments, poses, mouths open to speak, blurry chins, none of which we choose ourselves.”

The book is a chunky 500 pages, encompassing subjects as diverse as the art work of Francesca Woodman and the shadow boxes of Joseph Cornell, the origin of the dolls known as Frozen Charlottes, the writing of W. G. Sebald and the photography of Rimbaud.

It includes a series of letters, sometimes heart-breaking, from now-dead relatives: those of a gentle doomed boy-soldier are poignant, saying very little of his experiences, and ending always, almost like an incantation: “I am in good health and doing well. How is everyone? Write to me about everything. Only please don’t worry about me, it’s quite unnecessary. Be happy and healthy. All my love to Mother, Auntie Beti, Lyonya, Lyolya, their baby and Sarra Abramova.” Stepanova acknowledges the moral difficulties that come in reproducing elements of someone’s history in this way: is she memorialising her family or appropriating them?

Having finally finished the book, I wanted immediately to read it again, as it is swarming with so many ideas, but it is dense and long, so that will have to wait for a while.

The Sentence by Louise Erdrich (USA)

This is book 2 of my 20booksofsummer22, so I seem to have made a slow start, although I am partway through six more of my 18 remaining books!

The Sentence was selected to read by my small book club, which comprises me, my pals Jo and Sonia (who I’ve known since we met at an NCT group in South London when we were all expecting our first babies 18 years ago), and Emily and Shona, who I met through Jo when we set up book club about 12 years ago, and who are now buddies. We’re not a typical book club I think, as we’re mainly there for food, drink and chat, though we probably give a discussion of books and the picking of new books an hour of our evening…

This was my first read by the much-garlanded Louise Erdrich, a winner of both the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award, and The Sentence was shortlisted for this year’s Women’s Prize. It takes in important contemporary issues – the impact of the George Floyd murder, COVID – as well Native American history and folklore.

The overall premise of the novel sounded really intriguing. In her thirties, heroine Tookie made a mistake that landed her a long spell in prison, but is apparently now fully rehabilitated, married to an ex-cop and working in an independent Minneapolis bookshop. But, when the shop’s ‘most annoying customer’, Flora, drops dead and soon afterwards proceeds to haunt the store, Tookie has a mystery to unravel.

The trouble is, I didn’t care. I quite like a spooky book, but the haunting felt a bit silly for the most part. It certainly wasn’t the book I expected from the opening chapter, when Tookie is feckless, high, drunk and prone to hilariously awful mishaps. As a responsible member of the community the character was suddenly drained of all of appeal for me. The digressive style didn’t reel me in either, and the novel felt a bit under-edited and thrown together, like a few other examples of the new brand of ‘pandemic lit’ (Sarah Hall’s Burntcoat is another).

In fact, my favourite thing about this book is its secondary discussion of books and authors. Tookie mentions books she’s read, and recommends books to others. The Sentence even contains a sort of appendix, with lists of books in the back: a list of perfect, short novels (The Blue Flower by Penelope Fitzgerald, Train Dreams by Denis Johnson…), a list of ‘sublime books’ (Exhalation by Ted Chiang, The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro…), books on indigenous lives, and a ‘ghost-managing book list’.

I have had a secondhand copy of Erdrich’s Beet Queen lurking on my tbr shelves for years, and this book has slightly put me off ever reading it.

Behold the Dreamers by Imbolo Mbue (Cameroon)

This 2016 debut novel, raved over by Oprah, won the Pen/Faulkner award, and is the first in my list of 20 books for summer reading this year.

It’s towards the end of the first decade of the 2000s, and Jende and his wife Neni are trying to make a life for their family in New York, in the land of opportunity, far from their home in Linde, Cameroon. While waiting for his asylum application to be processed, Jende miraculously lands a dream job as a chauffeur for Clark, a senior executive with Lehman Brothers, and his family. Neni, meanwhile, is an international student, training to become a pharmacist.

We know, of course, that Lehman Brothers are doomed, and we know that the crash is coming, but the novel’s cast are blissfully ignorant, even if there are more than a few urgent, muttered calls between Clark and other executives in the back of his limo.

The novel sensitively portrays the hopes and dreams of economic migrants (so vilified by the UK Government and Priti Patel, who is herself so monstrous that she almost veers into self-caricature). All the characters are flawed and all deserve our empathy – it’s not a straight ‘good immigrants vs evil capitalists with a false sense of entitlement’ narrative.

As Jende and Neni’s lives become increasingly intertwined with the lives of Clark and his glamorous, brittle wife Cindy, the novel becomes quite a page-turner. However, I did find the narrative lost its way a bit after the economic crash, and that edge of the seat momentum completely dissipated. And Cindy could feel a bit of a cliché. Overall though, this is a really enjoyable and sometimes enlightening read.

Imbolo Mbue is herself a former resident of Limbe, Cameroon, who has subsequently made her home in New York, so perhaps her own experiences are what make both Limbe and New York feel so vividly realised.

I requested this book from the library, and one disappointing thing really is that from the “BLA” sticker on the outside I can see it is shelved in a “Black Fiction” section of the library, which feels rather like segregation – I knew I wanted to seek this particular book out, but another reader, browsing the main fiction shelves, would never have found it, denying it the wide readership it really deserves.

Georgian Food at Kartuli, London

As part of my monthly exploration of different countries, I’m trying to sample a menu from each country, and I happened to find myself in local Georgian restaurant Kartuli with two of my closest gal pals. It’s taken me too long to write the review.

The restaurant was very busy on a Thursday night, just two weeks after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, and the service was good, even if they did initially charge us for a bottle of wine we didn’t order (soon rectified).

We had some Georgian Shoti bread to accompany a sharing platter of Pkhali dishes, which are cold starters from the western Georgian regions of Imereti and Guria, based around beetroot, pinto beans, carrot and spinach (the pinto bean starter was my personal favourite).

I followed this up with a vegetarian main, a sort of hearty ratatouille-esque stew called Ajapsandali, described on the menu as a “vibrant dish cooked with aubergines, green beans, red and yellow peppers, fresh herbs, tomatoes, onions and garlic, seasoned with Georgian spices”. It was delicious, and I ordered some pan-fried potatoes on the side, though the waitress looked slightly askance at this choice.

Together with some delicious Georgian wine, and some interesting, slightly Addams Family-adjacent art on display (see below), this was a great night out.

My 20 Books of Summer 2022

I’m delighted that Cathy is hosting 20 Books of Summer again this year. I’m going for the full 20 again, although I’ve not once succeeded in hitting this target. I think I can read 20 books between 1 June and 1 September, but the challenge is keeping to these particular 20 (including Ulysses), plus I tend to fall at the hurdle of being arsed to write the actual review! Here I’ve gathered up 20 books that are definitely going to be a challenge one way or another:

1 The Sentence by Louise Erdrich (Women’s Prize/Book Club commitment)

2 Your Ad could go here by Oksana Zabuzhko (short stories: understanding Ukraine, on kindle)

3 A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian by Marina Lewycka (understanding Ukraine)

4 The Gates of Europe by Serhiy Plokhy (non-fic: understanding Ukraine)

5  Borderland: A Journey through the History of Ukraine by Anna Reid (non-fic: understanding Ukraine, on kindle)

6 Reparer les vivants by Maylis de Kerangal (keeping up my French)

7 Nadja by Andre Breton (keeping up my French)

8 Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoyevsky (understanding the headf*ck that is Russia)

9 We by Yevgeny Zamyatin (understanding Russia)

10 In Memory of Memory by Maria Stepanova (understanding Russia)

11 Black Earth City: A Year in the Heart of Russia by Charlotte Hobson (understanding Russia)

12 The Matter of Desire by Edmundo Paz Soldan (Bolivia – reading the less widely published parts of the world)

13 The Memory of Love by Aminatta Forna (clearing TBR)

14 They by Kay Dick (recently republished “lost” dystopian masterpiece)

15 An Unnecessary Woman by Rabih Alameddine (clearing TBR)

16 Behold the Dreamers by Imbolo Mbue (Cameroon – reading the less widely published parts of the world)

17 French Braid by Anne Tyler (recent release)

18 Ulysses by James Joyce (my reading 1922 project)

19 Claudine’s House by Colette (my reading 1922 project)

20 Jacob’s Room by Virginia Woolf (my reading 1922 project)

Other possibles, excluded reluctantly for now, include The Young Pretender by Michael Arditti, Tormented life: Nine Hypochondriac Lives by Brian Dillon and The Faces by Tove Ditlevsen.

Total pages: 6,373 = 69 pages a day

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