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Memory of Love, by Aminatta Forma.

August 9, 2013

Memory of Love, by Aminatta Forma.  Atlantic Monthly Press (2011), Hardcover, 464 pages



A powerful novel about  friendship, betrayal, and love in the violence of post-colonial Sierra Leone.  One of the best novels I have read this year.

 Aminatta Forna is the daughter of a Scottish mother and a father from Sierra Leone.  She grew up in the African country where her father was a physician and opposition political leader.  When she was ten, he was taken from their home and executed as a traitor. As an adult she returned to the country and wrote about him and her own experiences trying to learn more about his death.  Her personal understanding of life in a fragile post-colonial nation grounds this novel.

 Memory of Love weaves together the stories of three men.  Two are from Sierra Leone; Elias was a former college dean who is dying and wanting to tell his own version of events in which he played a role, and Kai is young surgeon who lived through the rebel takeover of the country.  The book is set in the near present, but Forna included the whole 30+ years of violence through the memories and flashbacks of her characters.  The old man had faced and adapted to the the violent dictatorship of earlier years.  The doctor and others of the next generation were still shaken from the waves of rebel killings in the 90s and the takeover of Freetown. The other main character is Adrian, an English psychiatrist who has come to assist the emotionally shattered residents of Sierra Leone, but they don’t cooperate. ”He came here to help, and he is not helping.”   As the plot develops we gradually see connections between these three.  Strong and interesting women characters are also significant in the book, but they are somewhat mysterious.  Although the book is generally written in third person, we view the women primarily through eyes of the men.

By making Adrian an outsider, Forma creates opportunities for readers to see him as the people of Sierra Leone saw him and to highlight the differences between what he has known in england and what he experiences in Africa.  He is not a possessive colonist or the butt of racial hatred.  Instead he is simply another well-meaning outsider who doesn’t understand what the people of Sierra Leone have lived through.  Someone who will eventually leave.  Kai has seen too many such people come and go.

It was errantry that brought them here, flooding through the gaping wound let by the war, lascivious in their eagerness…They came to get their news stories, to save black babies, to spread the word, to make money, to fuck black bodies. They all had reasons. Modern-day knights, each after his or her own trophy, their very own Holy Grail.

Kai also finds it hard to understand the way the way Adrian and other Europeans speak about possibilities.

This is the way Europeans talk, as though everyone shared their experiences. Adrian’s tone suggested that the desire to do something was all it took.  They all live with endless possibilities, leave their homes for the sake of something new. But the dream is woven from the fabric of freedom.  For the desire to exist requires the element of possibility.

Yet despite their differences, Kai and Adrian become good friends.


The patients that Adrian sees have no hope and see no reason to answer his questions of them.

It’s as though the entire nation are sworn to some terrible secret. So they elect muteness, the only way of complying and resisting at the same time.

Elias is the only person who wants to talk him, but his tale may not be true.

He’s using you to write his version of what happened, don’t you see?  And it’s happening all over the country.  People are blotting out what happened, fiddling with the truth, creating their own versions of events to fill in the blanks. A version of the truth that put them in a good light, that wipes out whatever they did or failed to do, and makes certain that none of them can be blamed….You are just a mirror….You will go away from here, you will publish papers and give talks, and everytime you do you will make their version the more real, until it becomes indelible.

Forma is an incredible writer.  In sentence after sentence she reveals what has happened to individuals and their country.  She takes us inside her characters so we empathize with their thoughts and actions in situations of extreme stress.  We not only grasp the personal loses, as we did in The Good Muslim, but also the larger social disruption that has occurred.  When Adrian is able to help patients with post-traumatic stress in the mental hospital, a colleague shows him the larger problem.  How will that patient be able to function in a neighborhood where 99% of the people are also suffering from PTSD?  He is forced to face a basic issue for psychology; what if the society is destroyed and not just the individual.  What Adrian labels as “disorder,” the people of Sierra Leone know simply as “life.”

Living in a country which fights its war in other nations, I know abstractly, of course, that war harms people, ordinary people, not just soldiers.  A book like this one brings home to me in emotional terms what that means.  And yet, the pain in this novel is balanced by the joy seen in the beauty of a waterfall, the love of another person, even the bittersweet memory of that love.

I very strongly recommend this book to other readers for its sheer beauty and for its meaningful content.

17 Comments leave one →
  1. Sharkell permalink
    August 9, 2013 8:48 pm

    This book as been on my radar for a while. It looks like I need to push it further up my list.

  2. August 9, 2013 10:42 pm

    I don’t think I’ve heard of this writer – or, if I have, the name hasn’t stuck. However, in my blog in box today were two email notifications, one after the other for reviews of her books – the first was Australian writer Nigel Featherstone reviewing her most recent book ( followed by your review for this book. I thought I was seeing double for a while. I’m clearly behind the times.

    • August 11, 2013 4:15 pm

      I hadn’t heard of her either. I was attracted by the picture of the cover, something very unusual for me. She is worth reading, I think.

  3. aartichapati permalink
    August 10, 2013 12:53 am

    Like Sharkell, this one is one I’ve been tracking for a while. I’m so glad you loved it – it sounds right up my alley!

  4. August 11, 2013 4:15 pm

    Yes, it is. I found it very moving.

  5. August 12, 2013 9:31 am

    surprising, that I’ve seen this title on quite a couple of blogs but yours is the first review of it I’ve read. Though you did not sate which era of war in Sierra Leone, I can say that the long drawn out war over there devastated the country a great deal. Coups after coups with one leader thinking he could be the saviour after the next. Really, for a time in the 70s, 80s and even 90s, this was the bane of lots of African countries, including Ghana.

    I would love to lay hands on this book. Thank you for such a great review, 🙂

    • August 13, 2013 10:46 am

      The book was set in a vague present, but Forna included the whole 30+ years of violence through the memories and flashbacks of her characters. The old man had faced and adapted to the the violent dictatorship of earlier years. The doctor and others of the next generation were still shaken from the waves of rebel killings in the 90s and the takeover of Freetown. That’s a good point to raise. I am going to go back and add it to my review.

      I hope you can read this book. I knew nothing about Sierra Leone before I read it. I’d be interested in your response to it.

      • August 13, 2013 11:22 am

        I would gladly look for a copy here, Marilyn. There is an article on Kinna’s blog (quite a while now) about Valentine Strasser, one time military leader of Sierra Leone. I think the title is the Vagabond King. Very poignant and insightful. Do look for it. 🙂

      • August 13, 2013 1:07 pm

        Thanks for the suggestion.

  6. September 20, 2013 11:44 pm

    this book has been in my table for a while now. I need to read it ASAP, it sounds like a great story.

    • September 21, 2013 8:54 pm

      Do read it. I think you will enjoy it. I will be interested in your reaction as an African.

  7. January 12, 2014 11:19 am

    I’ve come to your site today via Caroline Lodge. Was pleased to find another enthusiast for this novel. My own review focuses particularly on Adrian’s character stemming from my own background as a psychologist. Would be interested in what you think if you have time to look:
    Great idea for the site BTW!

    • April 8, 2014 10:31 am

      Somehow I missed your comment when it arrived. Sorry. I read your review and found your particular perspective insightful. There was so much in the novel to think about. I just finished her Ancestor Stones and loved it, too.
      Thanks for stopping by and directing me to your site.


  1. Me, you, and books
  2. Ancestor Stones, by Aminatta Forna. | Me, you, and books

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