The Memory of Love by Aminatta Forna – Book Review

Book Title: The Memory of Love

Author: Aminatta Forna

Genre: Literary Fiction, War, Cultural – Sierra Leone (Western Africa), Shortlisted for Women’s Prize for Fiction 2011

Blurb from Goodreads

Adrian Lockheart is a psychologist escaping his life in England. Arriving in Freetown in the wake of civil war, he struggles with the intensity of the heat, dirt and dust, and with the secrets this country hides. Despite the gulf of experience and understanding between them, Adrian finds unexpected friendship in a young surgeon at the hospital, the charismatic Kai Mansaray, and begins to build a new life just as Kai makes plans to leave.

In the hospital Adrian encounters an elderly and unwell man, Elias Cole, who is reflecting on his past, not all of it noble. Recorded in a series of notebooks are memories of his youth, the optimism of the first moon landings, and the details of an obsession: Saffia, a woman he loved, and Julius, her fiery, rebellious husband.

As their individual stories entwine across two generations in a country torn apart by repression and war, some distances cannot be bridged.

The Memory of Love is a towering tale of ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances, superbly realised and beautifully written, horrifying and exhilarating, unflinching and tender, moving and uplifting. It is the story of four lives colliding; a story about friendship, about understanding, absolution and the indelible effects of the past; about journeys and dreams and loss, and about the very nature of love.

My Review

Beautiful. Sprawling. Emotional.

Set in Sierra Leone this is a book that explores all the facets of love and of war through the intertwining stories of three men, Elias Cole, Adrian Lockheart and Kai Mansaray, and their loves, Saffia, Mamakay and Nenebah.

It explores survivor’s guilt, PTSD and the fugue state, marriage, friendship and betrayal.

I loved the way this book wove the three stories of the men together. I enjoyed reading about Elias’ story the best as he was an utterly fascinating character and not always the most reliable of storytellers!

Adrian and Kai’s relationship was a beautiful study of a friendship between men. It was so multi-layered and there was always something else to discover about these two as the pages passed by as their story compelled me to read quickly, and it also managed to surprise me on many occasions.

Both men were troubled…

Adrian was working in Sierra Leone away from his family, and Kai was a doctor trying to come to terms with the effects of the civil war. I know very little about the civil war in Sierra Leone but this book really made it come alive through the survivors and how they dealt with that survival. Survivors guilt and PTSD featured very heavily in this book as Adrian worked as a clinical psychologist.

The female characters in this book were also incredibly appealing to read about because they were written in the most amazingly seductive and effective of manners. Seductive in that they always felt as if their innermost selves were kept at arm’s length from me as a reader which made me want to shuttle through the pages even more quickly! I was desperate to know more about them. The book was told from the points of view of the male characters which made these independently minded women feel deliciously allusive. I adored Mamakay; she was probably my favourite character in the whole novel as she very much came alive with the author’s descriptions of her and her life story.

Overall the story kept surprising and rewarding me as a reader until the end, and ultimately I was incredibly moved by all of the characters and how they were affected by the war.


Favourite Quotes

People are wrong when they talk of love at first sight. It is neither love nor lust. No. As she walks away from you, what you feel is loss. A premonition of loss.

The memories come at unguarded moments, when he cannot sleep. In the past, at the height of it, he had attended to people whose limbs had been severed. Working with a Scottish pain expert years later, he treated some of those same patients again. They complained of feeling pain in the lost limbs, the aching ghost of a hewn hand or foot. It was a trick of the mind, the Scotsman explained to Kai: the nerves continued to transmit signals between the brain and the ghost limb. The pain is real, yes, but it is a memory of pain.

And when he wakes from dreaming of her, is it not the same for him? The hollowness in his chest, the tense yearning, the loneliness he braces against every morning until he can immerse himself in work and forget. Not love. Something else, something with a power that endures. Not love, but a memory of love.

‘Do you know what it took to survive in a place like this, where everyone was watched all the time, when you never had any idea who your friends were? Waiting to see who would be next.’
Adrian stands up and moves towards her; he wants to take her in his arms. ‘I imagine it took great courage,’ he says.
She moves away, as though his touch would burn her. From the other side of the verandah she looks at him and laughs humourlessly. ‘Oh of course, the new orthodoxy. Everyone’s a victim now. It’s official. But you see, that’s where you’re wrong, Adrian. Courage is not what it took to survive. Quite the opposite! You had to be a coward to survive. To make sure you never raised your head above the parapet, never questioned, never said anything that might get you into trouble.

How does a man like him believe in love? A man trained to analyse the component parts of emotion. Measures of neurochemicals, of serotonin, hormones, oxytocin and vasopressin. He who would name, classify and diagnose every nuance of the human soul into attachments, complexes, conditions and disorders. There exists, somewhere, a scale for love invented by one of his profession. Others have identified the neurological reward pathways of the brain, the tripwires that mark the way to love. And there are others still who say love is but a beautiful form of madness.
Adrian does not know.

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