The brilliance of this novel comes not from its unusual setting or the depiction of a place in gory detail, but from a sensitive weave of emotions that could have gone off into a dangerous tangent but doesn’t. The novel is an insightful portrayal of the fractured sensibilities of Freetown, a city in a civil war- torn country where a brute majority of the population suffers from post-traumatic stress, the results of war wounds both physical and psychological.
The story unfolds in two stages, one is in the sixties and the other in the nineties, towards, respectively, the beginning and the end of the horrific human suffering in Sierra Leone, the country used as the setting. Author Aminatta Forna explains: “The book isn’t about my background. Nor is it about Sierra Leone. It is about people – characters – who happen to live in Sierra Leone.” The author was born in Scotland and raised in Sierra Leone, the West African country that suffered a decade-long civil war in the nineties.
War affects people in the same way wherever one lives and good literature is probably about portraying any event in its universal elements. Ms Forna has succeeded in this aspect and she is held out as one of the best voices from the genre of “other literatures”. The author resists the tag; she says, “I am half-Scottish.” But her constant association with Sierra Leone, the country of her father, holds a strong presence in not just the story and events but also the sensibilities she has used in the book.
There is a rich array of protagonists, held together by a back story connected with the political situation in the country, but there are four characters that hold the tapestry in place. The characters of the narrative include Lockheart, who works in a hospital; Kai, a native of the country and a surgeon who is ever hopeful of living in the US, who tries to befriend Lockheart; Elias Cole is from the older generation and the one whose “confessions” carry the story forward; then there is Nenebah, daughter of one man, ex-love of another and linked romantically with the third, and all four carry the baggage of their own guilt. The author here may be a woman but the perspective of the book is predominantly male.
Adrian Lockheart is British, a psychologist, and disillusioned with his current life. He hopes to pitch his lot into healing hearts in a part of the world quite removed from his own. But once in war-torn Freetown, Lockheart’s European therapeutic sensibilities are put to test in a world that seems to be a labyrinth of untold secrets. Ms Forna unequivocally brings on her take of the role of aid workers in Third World countries. She has even mentioned in an interview why it cannot possibly work too, “It’s civil war, so you’re living with the people who did this to you afterwards.”
Ms Forna makes good use of the concept of the “renaissance generation” of Africans in the plot, and brings in the event of Man landing on Moon as one of the backdrops of the thread. The ostensibly common Western assumption that Africa as a region stands apart from world events as such is destroyed quite forcibly in the novel. This is a huge and new canvas and Ms Forna’s writing does not disappoint. It’s brilliant and, despite being not very lyrical and slightly sagging in narration, makes the reader want to go the end of it all. There is loss, despair, hope and the pure tragedy of human living that goes on despite its mammoth proportions of self-inflicted grief.
Ms Forna has her research well in place and the BBC journalist in her makes sure the story does not wander away from local flavours. She also examines the justifications of those idealists who invariably lose everything to a cause. The book has been lauded as excellent reading and keeps moving into various lists of literary awards. The Memory of Love recently won the Africa Best Book category of the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize, was shortlisted for the Warwick Prize and is currently on the shortlist of the Orange Prize 2011. It has been selected as one of the Best Books of the Year by the Sunday Telegraph, Financial Times and Times.
The world is rather volatile at the moment and war could be at anyone’s doorstep. The Memory of Love could probably serve as a sensitive reader’s prompt for a perspective on personal responsibility in a time of political upheaval. Should one stand up or not against people and movements or should one just hope for the best and move on? The author’s past, where she lost her father in one such period turmoil, perhaps gives her the courage to ask this question. I guess we owe her an answer.
Aminatta Forna discusses The Memory of Love on BBC WS Africa
THE MEMORY OF LOVE
445 pages; Rs 699