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 both with troubled orthopaedic surgeon Kai and 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.