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.”
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.