Aminatta Forna’s novel is set in Freetown, Sierra Leone – in the aftermath of one of the bloodiest civil wars in modern history. Although the title focuses on love, the book is about so much more than that: betrayal, loss, longing and how a society crippled by the fear and trauma of war can never entirely move on.
The novel focuses on characters in the city’s hospital: Adrian – a British psychiatrist who goes to Sierra Leone to escape his life in the UK – becomes friends with Kai, a native surgeon who is unable to see beyond his past. A dying patient in the hospital, Elias Cole, feels the need to confess to Adrian the story of his love, and how it led him to commit acts which have haunted him since.
The Memory of Love shifts in time, from Elias’s account – which begins in 1969 – to Kai and Adrian’s modern day struggles. The parallels and links between the plots become only more obvious as the book goes on, to reveal an intricately planned and wonderfully crafted novel. The three are all connected with love – or the memory of – which has caused them just as much pain as the war.
The extraordinary circumstances which the three find themselves in lead each of them to commit terrible wrongs of betrayal, cowardice, envy and selfishness. At the heart of the novel is the terrible secret of war: the chilling fact that in brutal conditions it is not only evil individuals who carry out evil deeds. Forna’s characters are so well-drawn and authentic – so human – that you cannot help but identify with them. The ending, although tragic, is also uplifting, and you feel the characters’ loss as your own.
In the end, however, it is the finer details of the novel that make it so powerful. There’s Agnes: the patient who, returning home after suffering in a refugee camp during the war, returns to discover that her daughter has married her husband’s killer. Then there’s the male patient who becomes hysterical at the mere smell of roasting meat, due to the memories of burning flesh which return to him. It’s these smaller stories that really hit home the extent of the war, and its destructive impact on every person in the country.
The Memory of Love looks beyond the surface of civil war to observe the deeper consequence of a nation scarred with brutal memories. It is a moving novel which tackles the most unanswerable of questions: what leads us to do the things we do?