Aminatta Forna’s latest book, published in January 2011 by Bloomsbury, is a moving portrayal of love and hope and the undying human spirit. Set in Sierra Leone, a country that has just emerged from a decade of civil war, The Memory of Love revolves mainly around a few characters whose lives intertwine through the course of generations, and through whose eyes and voices the story unfolds.
At the center of it all is Elias Cole, an ailing academic, who has sought out Adrian, a young British psychiatrist working at the local hospital. Cole narrates his life (and much of the story), introducing voices and characters from the past. From Cole’s recollections, we learn of his obsession with Saffia the wife of one of his colleagues, and the great lengths he goes to in order to be near her. As fate would have it, Saffia’s husband Julius passes on and Cole finally gets to marry the woman he has so deeply desired. To Cole’s disappointment, he and Saffia fail to achieve anything near to the kind of intimacy that he knows Saffia had with Julius.
“I touch her back. For a few seconds, until she turns to me, she is utterly immobile… She places her arms around me. But there is something held back…The truth, if you want it, was that it had never bothered me… But no longer…
Instead I am remembering a day… And this, the truth now, is what I was thinking. That, until the truck driver laughed his filthy laugh, I had been unable to place the sounds we both heard. They were unfamiliar to me because I had no idea what a woman’s pleasure sounded like… This is what I remember as I lie with Saffia.”
Over the course of his sessions with Cole, Adrian eventually figures what is going on. Cole is trying to come to terms with what has gone wrong in his life, while rationalizing his own shortcomings and culpability.
“Here in the land of the mute, Elias Cole has elected to talk. It has never occurred to Adrian to ask why, just as he never questions the presence of a patient I his office, only asks how he might be able to help them. The difference between Elias Cole and the men at the hospital is that Cole is educated. The more education a person has received, the more capable of articulating their experiences they are. Also of intellectualizing them, of course.”
Away from his time with Cole, Adrian sees many other patients who come in for psychiatric help – like Agnes, the woman who keeps wandering in search of a gold necklace, and Adecali, the young man who is prone to violent eruptions and who cannot stand the smell of roasting meat. He is determined to do what he can to help them confront their demons and return to normal life. But as Attila the head of the hospital warns him, “normal” is a relative term.
“A few years back a medical team came here. They were here to survey the population… Do you know what they concluded?… The conclusion they reached was that nine-nine percent of the population was suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder….
When I ask you what you expect to achieve for these men, you say you want to return them to normality? Yours? Mine?… Anyway, you carry on with your work. Just remember what it is you are returning them to.”
Meanwhile, Adrian becomes friends with Kai, a young Sierra Leonean doctor, with whom they share an apartment at the hospital. A brilliant doctor, Kai is unmarried, and fully dedicated to his work. He, however, suffers from an inability to sleep – a fact that betrays his dark past. Fate ties the two together as their lives become entangled both professionally and personally.
This is a book with many running themes playing out at different levels, all against the background of a war that has taken a huge toll on the country. While the stories and encounters involving the central characters are deeply moving, what lurks in the shadows is even more gripping. It is the disturbing stories, the memories that remain silent, the ones that keep people like Kai awake through the night, that make Forna’s book so brilliant, moving and powerful.
With The Memory of Love, Aminatta Forna has cemented her place among Africa’s most exciting writing talents.