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Review: ‘The Memory of Love’ by Aminatta Forna

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?


To find out more about the Orange Prize, go to http://www.orangeprize.co.uk/ or visit their facebook page at http://www.facebook.com/orangeprize


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Review: ‘Grace Williams Says it Loud’ by Emma Henderson

A debut novel, Grace Williams Says it Loud is another novel on the Orange Prize shortlist. It tells Grace’s story – the story of a “spastic” and “mental defective” who is sent to a mental institute at the age of eleven. Set in the 1950s onwards, the novel explores the stigma attached to disability at the time, and now.

The novel focuses particularly on Grace’s relationship with Daniel, an epileptic who she meets at the Briar. They are both friends and lovers – Daniel is the one person who treats Grace with love and care. Essentially the novel is the story of Grace and Daniel’s love: love against the odds.

Grace narrates the story; her voice is poetic and assured but at the same time very detached and matter of fact. The removed tone Grace uses can seem at odds with the brutality of some of the scenes, sometimes detracting from the potency of some of the sadder and more shocking events. In places, the tone of the novel seems downright wrong: Grace reports violence and sexual abuse in a disconnected and even inappropriate way which makes it hard to be affected by her voice.  The novel can be jarring – the contrast between how the reader gets to know Grace (from inside her head) and how others view Grace is claustrophobic.

However, one incident in the book touched me deeply – when Grace is taken by her parents to visit the house of  a cellist in order to buy a cello for her younger sister. The man who sells them the instrument has a ‘different’ daughter, too, and although Grace’s parents fail to understand and appreciate their daughter, this man knows how to approach Grace. It was only here, when Grace was treated as a valued individual by someone other than Daniel, that I was struck by the tragedy of Grace’s situation.

Since I’ve finished the book, I’ve come to appreciate its beauty and pertinence. But I can’t help thinking that Emma Henderson’s attempt to voice the thoughts of a disabled person fails to bridge the gap between normality and disability: Grace remains distant and hard to relate to for most of the novel.


If you want to find out more about the Orange Prize, go to http://www.orangeprize.co.uk/ or check out their facebook page http://www.facebook.com/orangeprize

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