Posted by: Lisa Hill | January 12, 2012

The Memory Of Love (2011), by Aminatta Forna

The Memory of loveSome books – no matter how subtle or skilful the storyteller – are so firmly rooted in the brutal reality of 20th century history that the reader feels a sense of dread with every passing chapter.  So it is with Aminatta Forna’s The Memory of Love, shortlisted for the 2011 Orange Prize and winner of a Commonwealth Writers’ Prize for Best Book.  Set in the aftermath of the Civil War in Sierra Leone it is such a relentlessly harrowing book, it’s hard to leave it behind when finally one reaches the last page.

It’s the author’s restraint that makes it so harrowing. Anyone who remembers the news reports about the war in Sierra Leone already knows the back story gradually revealed by the characters.  Anyone who’s read Gil Courtemanche’s An Afternoon at the Pool in Kigali knows what to expect.  Any reader who comes to care about  the characters at all yearns – without much hope – that there will be a resolution offering some kind of peace for them.  And such a reader knows full well that the real people symbolised by these characters are living with the same sort of reality and the same likelihood of ever achieving any kind of normality (however that might be defined).

The story is narrated in the self-indulgent first person by Elias Cole, dying in the comfort of a private room in Freetown after a lifetime of greasing his career path at the university, and in the third person as we learn the story of Kai, a workaholic surgeon trying to blot out a traumatic memory not revealed until the very end.  Adrian Lockheart, a young English psychologist escaping from a banal marriage and career is the confidante of neither because the voluble Elias is silent about his acts of betrayal and Kai, like every other victim of the war, is too damaged to reveal his pain.  In an under-resourced hospital too-used to foreigners blundering into circumstances they don’t understand and none-too-privately despise, Adrian is politely tolerated but not expected to achieve much.  While Kai performs miracles with primitive equipment and a shortage of trained staff, Adrian deals with the mad and the sad with only vague hopes of restoring them to normality in a place where almost the entire population is suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder.

In  this scenario, Elias is perhaps too unsympathetically drawn.  The fact that he is dying is ironic: he is the ultimate survivor.  I suspect that he will make most female readers’ skin crawl, and many a male reader might long to dish out a little rough justice.  His voice dominates the novel: unwillingly we learn about his obsession with another man’s wife, his sleazy stalking, and his relentless petty note-taking about the rival whose friendship he persuades us to believe that he valued.  As the revelations mount we long for Adrian to challenge this banal self-delusion but he is a psychologist and ought not make judgements.

But Adrian – like all the characters – is flawed, and when he falls in love his dispassionate clinical manner vanishes along with his sense of judgement about other things too.  Everything gets very messy indeed as love triangles intersect.

Perhaps I’ve read too many harrowing books lately…

Author: Aminatta Forna
Title: The Memory of Love
Publisher: Bloomsbury 2011
ISBN: 9781408809655
Source: Kingston Library.

Fishpond: The Memory of Love


  1. I had similar problems with this novel — it promises so much along various story lines, but never seems to fully deliver.


    • Hi Kevin, good to hear from you:) I think I’ll try her other novel if I see it, but I did feel that this one was not quite as good as I was expecting.


  2. You do sound like you need something light and fluffy to read, Lisa. I could send you something if you like
    What about Richard Neville’s ‘Playing Around’? Or ‘Dame Edna Everage and the rise of Western Civilisation’ by John Lahr.
    Oh! I know! ‘The Wit of Whitlam’ from Outback Press. A slim volume but good for a laugh.
    Seriously though, it is easy to get empathy fatigue. Some books are like huge banquets…the next day, all you can handle is a salad!


    • I’m hoping my next book is better, it’s Eric Newby’s A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush …


  3. This book has been on my to-be-read list for some time, as I waited for it to come to the library. I hear what you say about harrowing. During the Great Depression, people turned to Fred and Ginger. Today we seem to be offered more and more Slough of Despond. Of course these truths need to be told. I’m just ready for a little break. Food writing should do it.


    • Ah yes indeed, A diet of serious books needs a little leavening from time to time!


  4. I loved this book. It was indeed harrowing but I thought it was powerful as well.


  5. I have been doing some research & reading around Sierra Leone, my Grandfather spent 2 years there during WWII, so this book had hit my radar, although not within my time frame. I may add it to the bottom of my SL reading list & move to another.


  6. […] came to this title after reading Lisa Hill’s review, which wasn’t glowing but which nevertheless sparked my curiosity about the book, and like […]


  7. […] came to this title after reading Lisa Hill’s review, which wasn’t glowing but which nevertheless sparked my curiosity about the book, and like […]


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