The Memory of Love, by Aminatta Forna

ARC courtesy Bloomsbury Press -- click cover for info

With the exception of Ulysses (a planned extended read), there is no doubt that it took me longer to complete The Memory of Love than any other book that I have read this year — a distinction that I think it will continue to hold at year end. Part of that is undoubtedly the novel’s 464 largish pages and small type. Even more of a factor, however, is the nature of author Aminatta Forna’s story and the way that she has chosen to tell it. I found that the book needed to be put down after every 40 or 50 pages (and that is definitely not my normal reading style) and often required a day or two of contemplation before it could be resumed.

The Memory of Love is set in Sierra Leone as the twenty-first century opens. The West African country has been plagued by decades of violent disruption, particularly in the late 1990s, and every character in the book bears the scars (physical, emotional or both) of the atrocities that took place there.

Forna uses three central characters, each of whom anchors a narrative stream — the point of view alters between the three throughout the book, although they do overlap.

Elias Cole is an aging, retired university professor, now on his deathbed in hospital. His disturbed memories extend back to 1969 and the conflict that was taking place even then — his “love” is Saffia, the wife of a fellow professor:

I saw a woman once, the loss of whom I mourned, even before I had spoken a single word to her.

20 January 1969. The faculty wives dinner. We, the bachelors, gathered together at the bottom of the lawn, a patch of untended weeds. On the other side of the grass was the reception line. I was listening, or at least making the appearance of it, to my companion complain about the reallocation of space in the faculty building. He had lost out, which was a shame, no doubt. As he spoke he wiped his face with the napkin that had been wrapped around his glass, leaving flacks of paper all over his forehead. I found myself inclined to stare and so I looked away, towards the arriving guests. She wore a blue gown and, as she descended the stone steps to the lawn, her fingers plucked lightly at the fabric, which clung to her in the heat. I watched her and felt a surge of feeling, that then nameless emotion.

Elias has a need to recount a version of his life (which may or may not be reliable, perhaps deliberately unreliable) and finds a willing set of ears in the second major character, Adrian Lockhart, an English psychologist on temporary secondment to the hospital — an assignment he has chosen mainly because both work and home life in England have left him isolated and confused. The new assignment proves equally as isolating as none of the patients or clients that he is assigned want to see him more than once. He eventually follows one, Agnes, a woman who has the habit of “wandering” every two months or so until someone kindly takes her to the asylum — the locals say she “may be able to cross back and forth between this world and the spirit world.” Adrian eventually makes a diagnosis of “fugue”, a condition first posited in 1887 and for the most part denied by the profession ever since:

A spate of fugues followed the publication of Les Aliens Voyageurs, Adrian reads. Most accounts related to missing servicemen between the First and Second World Wars. The men eventually turned up hundreds of miles away from home. All claimed to suffer memory loss, not to know who they were, or how they had ended up in the place in which they were found. Some were using other names and pursuing new occupations. All appeared to inhabit a state of obscured consciousness from which they eventually emerged with no memory of the weeks, months or even years they had spent away. These were not isolated incidents in the lives of these men, but a constant, a pattern of behavior, of journey, of wanderings of compulsive travelling. The suspicion, on the part of the psychiatrists treating the servicemen, was of malingering. The men were shot as deserters.

That diagnosis does not just to apply to Agnes; indeed, it could be applied to every character in the book. Memory of atrocities witnessed or inflicted cannot be denied, yet it cannot be fully addressed either. At some point, the victim — and everyone is this book is a victim in one way or another — needs to travel to another place, be that in this world or the spiritual world. Some things are so terrible that a collective refusal to remember them is the only way to survive.

Yes, Adrian also finds a “love” as the book progresses, a young woman whom he thinks has replaced his English wife and daughter as the centre of his world. Perhaps.

And finally there is Kai Mansaray, a young indigenous surgeon, who shows up one night at Adrian’s room at the hospital — staff used it as a crash pad before the European arrived and Kai intends to continue doing so. The next morning over breakfast, they discuss Adrian’s presence:

“I’m seconded for a year.”

“So you don’t plan on coming to live here for good. No, well I thought not. If you did, you would be the first immigrant in two hundred years.” Kai Mansaray laughs at his own joke, a raucous ear-splitting sound. “We don’t even have any tourists. Except your sort, that is.”

“My sort?”

The visitor [Kai] takes another bite of bread. “Nothing. What I meant to say to you was, “Welcome!” He raises his coffee cup.

Like Elias and Adrian, Kai has a “love”, or at least the memory of one from his student days. And like the other two as well, he is selectively exploring the memory of his history and his present — and having a difficult time with that selectivity.

Forna does not hesitate to concretely describe the atrocities that require this extensive editing of memory (and that reading is painful), but that is not what makes The Memory of Love a challenging read. Rather it is her commitment to exploring each segment in almost relentless, sometimes apparently irrelevant, detail (take another look at the quotes — they are representative of the entire book), creating a sensory overload in the reader. Rather than an editing of memory, it is a surfeit of what might or might not be important. In no way does that experience directly compare to the atrocities that the characters have experienced, but in its own way it has the same numbing effect — which demands that the book be put down fairly often so the reader can sort out just what is going on.

I was reminded often while reading this novel of the oral story-telling tradition of indigenous authors from Canada (see the review of Joseph Boyden’s Through Black Spruce) and Australia (see Alexis Wright’s Carpentaria). While Forna was born in Scotland, she was raised in West Africa and I have to believe was influenced by an oral story-telling tradition there. That tradition takes an incident and explores it in significant detail as the installment of the evening — with another incident explored in equal detail the next night and so on. While the over-arching story may be bold (in this case, a horrible atrocity that touched every citizen) the segments of the recounting are a deep exploration of details which seem to be incidental at first glance — but are important to the individuals who lived through them. The big story moves at a glacial pace, but then so does life. So it should come as no surprise that a story that was meant to be “told” over a period of days, weeks or even months takes more than a few days to read.

That experience would not be welcomed by every reader and I certainly would not describe The Memory of Love as an enjoyable book. I would, however, characterize it as an immensely compelling one. I knew as I was reading it (and setting it aside) that if I started another book instead of returning to this one, I would probably not return to finish this novel — and that would be a dreadful disservice to an author who has crafted such a painful, but important, story.

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15 Responses to “The Memory of Love, by Aminatta Forna”

  1. amymckie Says:

    Ooohhh this sounds like a hard read but an incredible read. I enjoyed her biography, The Devil That Danced on the Water and meant to read more by her but haven’t picked anything up yet.

  2. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Amy: This was my first book by Forna — I suspect previous exposure would have been helpful. I certainly admire her for taking on such a difficult subject.

  3. Lisa Hill Says:

    I know what you mean about books like this that are compelling and important but sometimes very difficult to persist with because of the horrors they depict. A Sunday at the Pool in Kigali is another example…
    Lisa

  4. Trevor Says:

    I just had a similar experience with Elias Khoury’s White Masks, which is a kind of murder mystery that takes place during the Lebanon civil war in the late 1970s. The narrator goes around intereviewing people about the murder, ultimately ending up hearing much more about their own stories which may or may have nothing to do with the murder mystery and only a bit to do with war, at least explicitly. It was at times horrific, at times a bit of a drag because it seemed to evade the narrative we expected. I’m glad I read it, though I had to resist the urge to put it down, also knowing that if I did I might not return to it.

  5. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Lisa, Trevor: I also have run into this before (look back to my review of Chef by Jaspreet Singh for the most recent example) and have usually found the technique to be effective. I think of it mentally as “an echo effect” — an author chooses to explore an atrocity or other major conflict through the tangential narratives or memories of some minor characters in the bigger picture. The downside of the technique is that it produces that “draggy” effect; the upside is that it offers both a smaller picture and more humanity for the reader to consider the bigger issue. So often when authors address that “bigger issue”, even in fiction, the result turns into a preachy polemic that I am quite willing to abandon.

    I’m also heartened by both your comments to find other readers who experience the “I need to finish this book” phenomenon. I would have felt it was a major black mark on my reading character if I had abandoned this novel.

  6. Tom C Says:

    This sounds like a complex and difficult read and I admire you for getting to the end of it. I suspect I would find this a bit of an ordeal and I admire your perseverance. I have had similar feelings to yourself when reading a rather painful book and knowing that it was better to finish it than to leave.

  7. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Tom: I suspect my experience was colored by also have read Doing Dangerously Well recently — another novel set in Africa with some similarities to this one. It was a much easier read than this one — and I do think this is the better book.

  8. Colette Jones Says:

    This is quite possibly my favourite book of the year so far. I agree that the reader must pay attention to every phrase, but because I enjoyed everything about this book, I did not find it to be “difficult” read at all, in fact quite the opposite.

  9. KevinfromCanada Says:

    I do think it suits some individual’s reading styles better than others. And I agree that “difficult” is probably a bad description — my guess is that those who don’t take to it would call it “long and boring”. Yet it is precisely that attention to detail which is the book’s greatest strength.

  10. Sanjit Says:

    Thank you for this cogent precis of the story and characters in Aminatta Forna’s ‘The Memory of Love’. I finished the book in little over a week, reading it in chunks rather as you described doing.

    I found Forna’s ‘The Memory of Love’ an immensely rewarding book. The depth of detail contributed to vivid storytelling, making this the most enjoyable book for me this year. I especially liked the intertwining and overlapping stories. Rather like a rich fabric, the warp and weft created over time and with great attention to detail rendered a very satisfactory result.

    I agree that it can be a demanding read – but only in that you, as a reader, have to think, react and understand as you read it. This process of cogitation may mean that the book has to be read in chunks. But it is a rewarding, even inspiring, read. It sparks the inmagination in ways that very little writing seems to.

  11. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Sanjit: This novel had slipped out of mind — thanks for bringing it back up. I did find when I reread the review that the book quickly came back into focus. My memory is that it was a rewarding, if challenging, read.

  12. Liz at Literary Masters Says:

    No doubt you know by now that this novel has won the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize for 2011. So…I am reading it, and I just put it down for a few moments because I thought I remembered having read something about the book on your blog. And now that I’ve read this post in its entirety,I must say you’ve really captured both the book and my reading experience of it! And now I’m going to pick the book up again because your post has made me look forward to continuing with it. Soon we’ll see if it wins the Orange Prize, too.

  13. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Liz: It does have the kind of earnestness that the Commonwealth Prize seems to want to reward (I’m not a big fan of the CP, I admit). But the book also has some very well developed characters and a real sense of humor.

  14. Liz from Literary Masters Says:

    I’ve just finished the book–right before tomorrow’s announcement of the winner of the Orange Prize–and I must say, I did struggle to finish it. I think your review is incredibly insightful and generous and helped me to continue with the book; however, I feel that a very important story could have been told…much better. Perhaps because this is a book (and therefore I am reading it, not listening to it), I found all the laborious details frustrating to wade through. Also, I kept thinking that there was too much “telling” as opposed to “showing.” I am still processing my thoughts about the novel, but I don’t think I can recommend it to many people, and I’ll be surprised if it wins the Orange. But then, as I mentioned on Trevor’s blog, I didn’t like Room, Great House, or The Tiger’s Wife. Maybe it’s me!

  15. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Liz: I am inclined to agree with you about this novel falling short when it comes to the Orange Prize. I agree that there is some heavy sledding in the reading — I found it worthwhile, but I can understand why others would not.

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