Book Review: Memory of Love

Grove Atlantic
Cover image from Grove Atlantic

I haven’t written a book review in a while! But, to be fair, as an admittedly slow reader that is to be expected. For the last few months I have mainly been making my way through this book which – I’m pleased to now say – is (very nearly) complete! Yay!

I discovered the novel Memory of Love by Aminatta Forna (2010) very randomly through the ebook library site I use. The blurb pulled me in strongly before the book did and I read it and thought ‘woah, that’s going on my reading list!’ Then the time felt right to start the book and the rest is history.

I’ve put the blurb I read online below so you can marvel at its beauty yourself:

Freetown, Sierra Leone, 1969. On a hot January evening that he will remember for decades, Elias Cole first catches sight of Saffia Kamara, the wife of a charismatic colleague. He is transfixed. Thirty years later, lying in the capital’s hospital, he recalls the desire that drove him to acts of betrayal he has tried to justify ever since.

Elsewhere in the hospital, Kai, a gifted young surgeon, is desperately trying to forget the pain of a lost love that torments him as much as the mental scars he still bears from the civil war that has left an entire people with terrible secrets to keep. It falls to a British psychologist, Adrian Lockheart, to help the two survivors, but when he too falls in love, past and present collide with devastating consequences. The Memory of Love is a heartbreaking story of ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances.

Overview

Without repeating the blurb too much, this book straddles the storylines of free different men – Elias Cole, Kai and Adrian Lockheart. It also alternates between the past and present – with much of Elias’ storyline being told from the past perspective – when he is a young man navigating the pre-civil war era in the country. In contrast, the civil war has past in Kai and Adrian’s era, with nothing left but the devastating ruin it has caused; ‘fixing’ this is something that is central to both Kai and Adrian’s jobs as doctors.

However, interweaved within the stories of these three characters are also love stories – from love that never was to love that was but was barren, and love that blossomed but was brief. These play a central part to the development of each narrator and the trajectory of their lives

My thoughts

Aminatta undoubtedly does a great job of painting a country holding great beauty but also dealing with the deep scars of war. Mentally, people are suffering but yet life forces them to go on to ensure survival. Two stories that particularly stood out to me are of patients Adrian treats during his time at a mental health clinic in Sierra Leone. First is Adecali – a young man who formerly was a child soldier and due to horrors witnessed has a strong aversion to the smell of burning meat. There is also another female patient who repeatedly visits the clinic and is treated by Adrian; Agnes – a mother who mysteriously tends to disappear from home and be found days later in a destination with no recollection of her journey. She becomes a fascination for Adrian who tries to get to the root of her behaviour throughout the book – when her backstory is revealed it is honestly so heartbreaking.

Interestingly, despite being set in a predominately Black country Aminatta decides to have predominately white characters as protagonists of this novel; both Adrian and Elias are white English men who reside in the country within different vocations. Elias, is a lecturer on a university campus, whilst Adrian Lockhart – living many years later – is a psychiatrist. This set up inevitably creates the dynamic of Black stories being told through a white lens. However, this is not something you read the book and are completely oblivious too. Constantly throughout the novel, Adrian (and to some extent Elias) is reminded that as a white man and foreign national he is ultimately outsider. He will never fully understand the culture, let alone the post-war mental scars within the patients he treats as someone who swooped in after the war and never experienced its horrors himself.

In a similar vein, although there are many women within the book who are pivotal to the storylines of the narrators – Mamakay, Saffia, Agnes, Illeana – because all the narrators are male, they’re forced to the sidelines, which didn’t seem very satisfactory to me. Don’t get me wrong, we do indeed get to learn about them in detail, but it’s always through the lens of the male gaze so we don’t necessarily get to chance to gain a fully intimate connection with them.

My main qualm with this novel, is its length. The ebook itself, which I read, was nearly 1,000 pages I believe – waaay too long for my liking 😥. I’m more of a fan of a shorter books (ideally 500 pages maximum.) Succinct storytelling is celebrated because it is a difficult skill to master but its really not a strong point in this book and I do wonder if the long length was necessary.

Final verdict

I would recommend this book – the story is beautifully written and unfolds in such an interesting way. It’s also always refreshing to have a book with a non-Western backdrop. However, due to its length be prepared to invest more time than usual in this book and it characters.

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Want to have a read for yourself? The book can be purchased (physical or ebook) format here.

You can also find out what others what thought here on GoodReads.

My new current read: The Other Black Girl by Zakiya Dalila Harris

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