Memory of Love starts leisurely, taking you into the internal workings of the mind of an old man, his frail state and his small world. You learn how he preserves his memories, and how he visits them frequently, and how being at the end of his life there is nowhere else to go but to the past, inwards, and what does he find? How happy is he with all that has transpired; his role in other people’s lives?
Aminnatta Forna is a skilful weaver. She creates characters that have fully formed and very rich internal worlds with languid phrases and a melancholy tone, using light brush stokes to create a picture of loss, of love, and of memory itself. In parts the information is very detailed, clinical and scientific but it never feels heavy. A significant portion of the story focuses on the psychological aspects of war and the invincible scars it leaves behind in the mind. Minor characters with varying signs of damage come and go in the novel, people with indeterminate disorders that need understanding. This helps to create an idea of a country that experienced a frisson and is now trying to heal itself from the outside in. This is where the heroes come in.
One of the four main characters, British psychologist Adrian Lockheart has a moment where a tiny sunbird catches his attention and he pauses to sketch it, he thinks in part,
“Somebody, Adrian forgets who – once told him that if humans were to fly they would require chest muscles six feet deep to raise their own weight. He wonders now if this could possibly be right. Or if it is one of those beliefs of which there are so many small and large, carried from childhood to adulthood without question. He did know the birds expended so much energy in flight they needed to drink twice their body weight in nectar a day. Such effort expended in the mere fact of existence. Sometimes nature’s ways did not bear scrutiny, only a result; a beauty that bursts the banks of logic.”
Paragraphs like this abound in this Commonwealth prize winning novel. Aminatta Forna freezes ordinary moments in time and deconstructs them, giving insight, slowly drawing you in. Adrian, it is expertly established, is an idealist, who has come to a war torn African country (Sierra Leone) to make a difference. He has left behind his daughter and a wife who steadily tires of trying to understand him and soon he starts to settle in, meeting people and trying to find his purpose. He believes the memory of war is catastrophic, indelible. That no one who outlives a war truly survives it in their mind. He arrives in the country with a vague aim of healing this rift.
The novel is narrated by different characters in intermittent chapters, one of whom is Elias Cole, an old man now dying of an incurable lung disease. He voluntarily checks himself into a psychiatric unit and begins to confess to Adrian in sessions which form the core of the novel. We travel with him back in time to the days of his youth and get seeped into his accounts of a golden evanescence when he was young his country was peaceful and he attended house parties characterised by intellectual discussions. He reveals all these from a personal diary which also charts the most significant event in his young life, his deep obsessive love for Saffia, a beautiful woman married to Julius Kamara, a more deserving and charismatic man. Nearing his end it is evident that Elias Cole wants to unburden himself, and his story is tauntingly told, chapter by skipped chapter, the tension building slowly until the eventual reveal.
Adrian’s final companion is Kai Mansaray, an orthopaedic surgeon with whom he forms a strong bond and who like the other men is steeped in his own memories of loss, who is looking to heal and be healed. Looking at a young boy whose leg is mangled by sarcoma and due to be amputated, Kai thinks, “death, so often ugly, can often arrive in the guise of such beauty” and this line in a way captures much of what is depicted and seen by Adrian in a country trying to recover from a devastating war. Where people are still walking around shell shocked, piecing together what remains. The ugliness of war contrasts with the tender beauty in trying to recover from it, to move on.
Each one of these three men become slowly but inextricably linked as their stories are woven together tenderly. At the centre of their lives is a woman from whom they receive redemption and find a common understanding. Memory of love tells a very human story about betrayal through inaction, friendship as companionship, love as absolution and war in the devastation not just of the body, or infrastructure but as a tear in consciousness that creates an altered state, a fragile intangible world. This ambitious and affecting novel is about conscience and the need for redemption through confession, through transcendent love and through healing.