“He did know the birds expended such energy in flight they needed to drink twice their body weight in nectar each day. Such effort invested in the mere fact of existence. Sometimes nature’s way did not bear scrutiny, only the result: a beauty that bursts the banks of logic.”
From the early pages of this exquisite, devastating book, I read the story like a jealous lover who doesn’t want to read or hear anyone else talk about the object of their affection. I coveted the choice and placement of each word; I desired to absorb my beloved’s odor, breath, and eyelash movements; the musicality of voice; to hang on the atmosphere of each sentence, unashamedly. Sometimes I sat with the book on my lap, admiring and caressing the cover with my fingertips, clasping the weight of its 445 pages to the flesh of my palm.
The Memory of Love is a novel in which a number of love stories run concurrently, feeding and watering each other over a period of 30-plus years, mostly taking place in Sierra Leone, beginning around 1968. A man is in love with a beautiful woman; she is in love with her husband. A surgeon loves everything that takes place in the operating theatre. Visionaries love their dreams. The young love the feeling of their invincibility. Some children are allowed to be loved and protected, while others are not. People love things the way they were: when things made sense/ before there was trouble. People love their homelands, no matter the pictures painted by those from outside. We love selfishly, deeply, altruistically and incidentally. We love feeling ourselves to be necessary. But we love with contradiction; we love dialectically.
With a deft hand, author Aminatta Forna weaves intimate narratives that challenge assumptions that no love exists in troubled places. She also interrogates how we perceive war—particularly on the continent of Africa—in the abstract.
“‘What were you told had happened here? Before you came, that is?’ asks Mamakay turning to him. ‘Ethnic violence? Tribal divisions? Blacks killing each other, senseless violence! Most of the people who write those things never leave their hotel rooms, they’re too afraid. And wouldn’t know the difference between a Mendeman and a Fulaman. But still they write the same story over and over. It’s easier that way. And who is there to contradict them?’”
The way Forna writes—both in this book and in The Hired Man—I am reminded that people are already lovers, fighters, cowards, and dreamers living simple and complicated lives with histories and choices, decisions, and refusals…preceding the events we label as atrocities and wars.
“‘It was rage. It wasn’t a war, what happened here, in the end. It was fury. Having nothing left to lose…’”
She explores questions such as: Who are the people who choose to take their talents and expertise to such places and why? Who are the people who could leave but prefer to stay? Who leaves and returns? Who would leave but cannot? What stories lie behind people’s ability to thrive during times that leave others “crossed?”
“But sometimes a person may be able to cross back and forth between this world and the spirit world. That is to say, a living person, a real person. And then they are in between worlds, in neither world, then we say they are crossed.”
This story isn’t only about who people are in times of unrest, but in peacetime, as well. The ways that people find themselves in relationship to each other in this book provides an undercurrent of suspense, and Aminatta Forna’s attention to detail and care in accessing her characters’ integrity brought me closer to them than journalism could.
The Memory of Love is not about heroes and villains. Still, I loved the impeccable head nurse, Salia, and the deep adeptness of Babageleh; Foday for never being a victim; Mamakay for being a daughter; Ileana for her joke about white wine; Abass for being a child, and even the knotty, indestructible senior psychiatrist, Dr. Attila.
I couldn’t agree more with the reviewer at “Reading Has Purpose” who wrote “There are some books that make me hesitate to start something new due to residual relishing. This was one of those books.”
Aminatta Forna is the daughter of a Scottish mother, Maureen Christison, and Sierra Leonean father. Her father, Mohamed Forna—a physician turned politician—was imprisoned, declared a Prisoner of Conscience, and finally executed in 1975, when Aminatta was about 10 or eleven years old. In the two books I have read by her, I’ve come to appreciate her tender, yet bold investigations of our deep, generous capacity for love, as well as the layers of fear and insecurity which inform our acts of cruelty.
Read more and view recorded interviews on her website.
Also worth checking out: “Opinion: Africa’s new story won’t be told without its diaspora” by Pius Adesanmi; and Jennifer Ambrose’s “Challenging The Western Narrative of Africa: An Interview with the filmmakers behind FRAMED.”