The Memory of Love (2010) – Aminatta FORNA

Now that I’ve joined a pretty informal book club, I get to read things I’ve been meaning to for ages but haven’t gotten around to it. The Memory of Love won the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize in 2011, a prize that has recently been revamped, now being awarded to debut novels. It’s nice to see an African novel from outside of Nigeria, too – the triple threat of Achebe, Adichie and Habila is often hard to fight.

I don’t know if it’s because I kept comparing it to Half of a Yellow Sun – which I know is unfair – but I kept waiting for the war to actually start. The two concurrent narratives take place before and after the war, leaving the horrors of the war to our own imagination. It’s not a bad idea, but I think I would have preferred to see, at the very least, the initial break-out of war, rather than cutting off before it. Instead, Forna concerns herself with how people deal with the past, and the lies they tell themselves about the past to make them feel good about themselves.

The most obvious way she does this is by parachuting a white British psychiatrist into Sierra Leone to deal with patients with PTSD. He serves two functions: the first is providing an outsider point of view, allowing us outsiders a way in. Of course, as with all outsiders, Adrian doesn’t fully understand the situation in which he has found himself, and tries to solve it in ways he knows. Forna makes an interesting point with Adrian – he is the stand-in figure for white people coming to Africa, thinking they understand the indigenous problems, thinking they can solve these long-term issues with ideas from the West.

Adrian also becomes our way into stories from the war. Obviously the central one is Elias’, but there are other, smaller stories he encounters. From the small deaf homeless boy to the woman who goes into a fugue state to mentally escape the horrors she endured in the war, Forna populates her novel with people who have had to learn to cope with the fall-out from a civil war that tore a country apart.

Adrian’s friend Kai, a surgeon who has had to learn to deal with everyday patients as opposed to M*A*S*H-style war surgery, figures heavily in Adrian’s new life. They form a strangely close relationship quite early on (a lot of us at book club thought there was going to be a big gay love story, but we were way off), and Kai’s own acceptance of war is a different tale from the others. Realising there is nothing left for him in Sierra Leone, he makes plans to emigrate to America – in this novel, he seems to be the only one interested in leaving. Is this because he thinks he has lost so much more than anyone else? Or because he’s the only person with enough money to actually follow through?

Elias’ story, on the other had, takes us to just before the breakout of the Sierra Leone civil war. A young university teacher, he finds himself isolated from the rest of his group of friends because he is somewhat socially awkward. But as the narrative progresses, it becomes rapidly clear that Elias Cole is actually a deeply unlikeable person. Desperately in love with the girlfriend of a friend, he slowly becomes a little creepy as he does everything he can to manufacture meetings with her. For a long time, Saffia seems completely oblivious to Elias’ intentions, though, thinking he is simply being friendly. Once Saffia and Julius marry, though, Elias doesn’t get the hint, continuing his pursuit of a woman that his now completely unavailable to him.

This is all build-up to the ultimate act of betrayal that is central to the novel, the one that affects almost all other characters, no matter how indirectly. When the two of them are in gaol on trumped up charges of sedition, Elias hears Julius choking to death. And then he doesn’t do anything about it.

No doubt there is some jealousy threaded through Elias’ actions. His refusal to believe that Saffia would fall for someone other than him makes him hate Julius more and more, and without thinking, he leaves Julius to die. In his very poor defence, he didn’t expect the other man to choke to death. But by not doing anything to help when he hears the sounds of choking, he is implicit in a death that could probably have been avoided. I certainly thought that’s where we were all headed – seeming the logical choice in a book about the effects of war would have been to have Julius killed by the police – but then, Forna and I don’t see eye to eye on what makes a good plot.

The Memory of Love is not bad. There are some nice scenes under which universal themes of love, betrayal and jealousy are built. But it didn’t go where I thought it would go – and more importantly, where I thought it should go. I would have liked to see Forna deal more with the war itself. I would have liked Adrian to be a bit stronger as a character. Novels like Half Blood Blues dealt with this in a better way – certainly for me, anyway.

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