The Memory of Love by Aminatta Forna | Book review

A painful tale set in postwar Sierra Leone

Reading Aminatta Forna's second novel, The Memory of Love, I found myself returning again and again to an assignment that took me to Freetown, Sierra Leone in 2002. Forna's book is set in the city at almost exactly that time – not long after the end of one of the bloodiest civil wars in modern African history – and she captures exactly the sense of numbed brutalisation that I saw first-hand in many places: in the eyes of former child soldiers who had been forced to mutilate and murder their parents, in the camps full of young girls raped and enslaved by the rebel forces, and abandoned by their families because of the "shame". I remember all too vividly trying to collect the horror stories that were those lives and the absolute inadequacy of my questions: "How did it feel…?" We like to talk about conflict resolution, and truth and reconciliation, in the context of such nationwide atrocity (the particular gruesome speciality of the war in Sierra Leone was the systematic amputation of limbs; queues were formed in front of drugged young men with machetes. But how do you really go about healing that kind of pain?

That is one of the questions that Forna approaches with the utmost caution in an ambitious and deeply researched novel – and the answers she finds are never easy. Forna, whose paternal family is from Sierra Leone, has lived with a good deal of that horror close to home. Her first book, a memoir, The Devil that Danced on the Water, tried to discover the truth of the death of her father – a political dissident who was imprisoned and killed when his daughter was just 11. Here, she attempts to expand from that missing centre of her own life to tell the story of a city and a nation whose every recollection is shadowed by grief and loss.

She constructs this history from three principal voices. Adrian Lockheart is a British psychologist, who finds himself hopelessly inadequate to a situation where "99 per cent of people are suffering Post Traumatic Stress Disorder" (although, he is quickly and brutally informed, they don't call it that, they just call it "living"). Lockheart has left a failing marriage and a young daughter at home and though he won't admit it to himself, the displacement activity of the Freetown asylum looks a lot like an effort to heal conflicts within himself.

He is confronted in this task with two men who have war stories of their own. Elias Cole, a former academic at the city's university, is Lockheart's only private patient. Their sessions, which form much of the book's narrative, consist of Cole telling the story of his life from intimate diaries kept from the 1960s to the present. Cole is a lecturer in modern political history, but his biography reveals how, in a place as fractured as Sierra Leone, the personal is never less than political.

Lockheart's other confidant is a local surgeon, Kai Mansaray. Mansaray specialises in orthopaedic reconstruction. He has no shortage of patients - the halt and the lame are Freetown's normality. Mansaray, like Lockheart, like Cole, however, is tormented as much by the loss of love as by the everyday horror he has witnessed. The reality of his work has cauterized his capacity for connection; he feels the lost love of his life like his amputees feel their phantom limbs; the "memory of love" is an absence every bit as desperate and intangible as any more corporeal haunting.

The metaphor of a healer in a place of insane violence is a familiar trope from The Last King of Scotland, and the books of Michael Ondaatje, and elsewhere, but by setting up the contrast between her physicians of mind and body Forna develops it in interesting ways. Mansaray can at least put limbs back together; Lockheart's textbooks of neuroses and instinctive feel for human motivation are left wanting by the unfathomable cruelty of the cases he comes up against – in particular a woman named Agnes, who, having been away at a refugee camp, returns, we discover, to find that her daughter has married her husband's killer. Freudian archetypes are everyday reality. Silence, which in the "normal" western world in which Lockheart has practised has always seemed to him pregnant with psychological clues, here just seems the only way of surviving.

As Forna's novel unfolds, and as we see the consequences of Elias Cole's biography of obsession and betrayal, we begin to see also how the lives of the three men at the heart of her story are linked by the love of a single woman. There is a neatness and a coincidence to this plotting that at times seems strained but serves Forna's wider point that everything is connected if you look hard enough.

Though it is far outside its scope, the book is a sharp reminder that the prime mover of Sierra Leone's monstrous recent history remains on trial in the Hague. Charles Taylor is so steeped in blood that his prosecutors still struggle to make any single one of his crimes speak to the incalculable sum of the grief visited on an innocent population. As Forna's forensic reinhabiting 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 GuardianTramp

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