Review: The Memory of Love, by Aminatta Forna

The Memory of Love takes place shortly after Sierra Leone’s Civil War (1991-99).  Adrian, a British psychologist, has returned to the country following an initial short volunteer experience.  He’s left his wife and daughter at home in the hopes of making a difference, helping the people of Sierra Leone recover from trauma.  His methods are viewed skeptically at first, but eventually he begins to have a positive impact on his patients.  Kai is a brilliant young surgeon working in the same hospital, and haunted by war trauma and lost love:

And when he wakes from dreaming of her, is it not the same for him? The hollowness in his chest, the tense yearning, the loneliness he braces against every morning until he can immerse himself in work and forget. Not love. Something else, something with a power that endures. Not love, but a memory of love.  (p. 185)

Kai is still in love with Nenebah, a woman who left him some time ago.  He also misses his best friend Tejani, who left the country to practice medicine in the US.  Kai toys with the idea of joining him, and takes steps necessary for immigration, but is clearly ambivalent about leaving other loved ones behind in Sierra Leone.

In Sierra Leone, silence rules the day: the war is simply not discussed; personal stress is suppressed, as if it’s all a big secret.  Most of Adrian’s cases suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder, having witnessed horrific violence during the war that they have been unable to deal with on an emotional and psychological level.  And then there is Elias, the patient who on the surface appears the most “normal.”  Elias checks himself into the hospital, knowing he is near the end of his life. He has a compelling need to unload his personal story on someone, and Adrian begins meeting with him.  Elias worked at the university, first as a lecturer and ultimately as dean.  While his personal circumstances kept him away from most of the violence, he and other academics were arrested under suspicion of some vaguely described wrongdoing.  Elias describes his response to this event, and its impact on important people in his life, in a matter-of-fact way but gradually Adrian realizes there’s much more to Elias’ story.

Aminatta Forna uses patient stories, gradually revealed through Adrian’s therapy, to help the reader imagine the war’s events.  She also builds a web of people which I found fascinating.  Kai and Adrian’s lives intersect first on a professional level and later in deeply personal ways.  The connections between people and events unfold slowly, and for me each revelation was very emotional.  This is especially true of Elias; when his “sins of omission” are revealed, his real character becomes known, as does a connection that binds him with both Adrian and Kai.  The ending was especially wrenching and yet somehow, just right.

This is a superb book; I was transfixed and couldn’t put it down.