Adrian Lockheart, a British psychologist on secondment to a hospital in Freetown, Sierra Leone, has a patient. Her name is Agnes, and he diagnoses her as suffering from fugue states, the rare dissociative disorder which is characterised by reversible amnesia, vagabond roaming, and the construction of new identities. He is practising in a Sierra Leone bloodied and broken by civil war, in which he is told 99% of people are suffering from post-traumatic stress. Another of his patients, Elias Cole, is nearing the end of his life and seeks therapy in unburdening himself of his past deeds, which stretch back to the late 1960s, when the country’s politics first began to turn truly sour. All this Adrian takes in even as he frets about his own atrophied marriage and the gnomic, enigmatic friend he has made at the hospital, the reconstructive surgeon, Kai.
Aminatta Forna’s The Memory of Love, then, focuses on three men for whom the past is a malevolent presence, full of grief, regret and compromised values. For Adrian, his wife and child are distant islands, and turn over as he might their years together he cannot understand how this drift has occurred; Cole, whose story comes to us via the novel’s only first-person passages, imparted to Adrian during long and increasingly fractious consultations, was a university lecturer in the early days of the government of Siaka Stevens, tangentially involved with a group of radical intellectuals and covetous of their leader’s attractive wife; and Kai remains a mystery to the reader even as he recalls his own past in some of the book’s most lyrical passages, which skirt around some awful, unresolved truth at the heart of his own experience of the war.
All this reminisence makes for a languid novel – one which, at 440 or so pages, can sometimes feel a tiny bit too long. But Forna’s very fine grasp of voice and character retain the reader’s interest, holding her narrators at arm’s length even as their stories converge. If that convergence relies a little too much on withheld information and unlikely coincidences, it cannot hurt a novel that is ultimately about transformation of character – at the centre of all Forna’s stories lies a woman who represents something different to each man precisely because she has so often remade herself in the crucible of war.
That war, though potently conjured, is never the focus – Cole’s story takes place well before its outbreak, whilst the damaged Kai constantly reminds Adrian – and by extension the reader – that he can never understand it, and should not even try. “Why have you come here and what are you looking for?” he demands of Lockheart (the name is fairly obviously symbolic) at one point [pg. 422]. Adrian and the Western reader alike have become too used to reflecting on Africa from privileged, uncomprehending afar and for their own reasons: “Children took so much for granted,” Forna writes, not entirely without reproof. “Children took happiness for granted.” [pg. 390] The focus throughout, then, is on the complexity, the iressolvability, of the aftermath and the interpretation. In this way, there are few easy lessons to learn, or even clear problems to fix – Kai reflects that “if he worked as a surgeon his whole life it would never be enough” to repair all that needs repairing [pg. 219]. There are only individual lives to bandage up and send on their way.
There is nevertheless – perhaps consequently – a great deal to take away from The Memory of Love, from its pungent capturing of the oppression and closeness of an African evening to its command of tone and its sly politics (“great societies are built on their administrators,” preaches Cole’s compromised, collaborating Dean). Indeed, what most strikes about this exquisitely written novel is its intricacy: its stately pace, which stretches the patients only rarely, conceals a wealth of incident and story which combine to parcel up a whole world, lightly but surely. This is a different achievement to the poetic intimacy of Great House, but no less affecting and arguably more ambitious. To say a writer is precise suggests coldness, but The Memory of Love is constructed in such perfect resonance with itself – each scene well chosen, each sentence phrased just so – that there are few words that do more justice to the clarity of Forna’s vision.
I confess I was a little surprised to see a book on the Orange shortlist which puts the only female protagonist almost at the service of the males’ stories; but this is nevertheless a real contender for the prize and a novel of rare quality.
ETA: In what might initially seem an odd link, Abigail Nussbaum’s post on X-Men: First Class identifies just the trope The Memory of Love so satisfyingly eschews: what she calls “an attitude that I’ve been noticing more and more often in Western, and particularly American, popular culture as it struggles with the topic of genocide and national trauma–a crucial failure of empathy, imagination, and, finally, perspective, that leads to a blanket condemnation of anger”; that Forna so resolutely denies that ‘healing’ is always possible, sensible, or even admirable, is one of the ways in which her novel builds its credibility, as well as its vitality.