Difficult to write convincingly about love and war, unless maybe you’re Tolstoy or Hemingway. The two subjects ought not to mesh. On the other hand, since war is always with us, as is love, you would think we’re talking about a growth industry. Question: Does war thwart the possibility of love, or is it that war heightens the love that preceded it? For Sierra Leonean writer, Aminatta Forna, it’s mostly the latter as her riveting new novel, The Memory of Love, demonstrates. Following her major characters in this brilliant work is often a grueling experience?bittersweet, in the best moments, but painfully disturbing when realizing that fairly recent events in Sierra Leone occurred with barely a blink of the eye from the West.
I say Sierra Leone, though the country is never mentioned during the text of the novel, nor is Freetown, where most of the action occurs. But Sierra Leone is where Forna grew up (she was born in the United Kingdom). By being somewhat oblique, however, it’s not difficult to imagine that the events and the characters in The Memory of Love could just as easily be a number of other African countries where social unrest has made life largely unbearable, especially for the “survivors.” One of the characters in the novel is a British psychiatrist, named Adrian, temporarily working in the country’s only insane asylum. He cites a study that concluded that 99 percent of Sierra Leone’s population suffer from PTS, which is certainly one of the highest percentages ever recorded. But the conflict was, indeed, that traumatic with an escape route possible for almost no one.
There’s a haunting sub-story woven into The Memory of Love that involves a woman suffering from a classic case of fugue, “Characterized by sudden, unexpected travel away from home. Irresistible wandering, often coupled with subsequent amnesia. A rarely diagnosed dissociative condition in which the mind creates an alternative state. This state may be considered a place of safety, a refuge.” The definition is mentioned by Adrian, as part of his study of a traumatized woman named Agnes, who shows up at the mental institution a number of times, brought there by other people who have found her wandering. The violence which became the catalyst for Agnes’s fugue is so unbearable and so crucial to the plot that I cannot in good faith reveal what it is, but it’s not difficult to extrapolate from her condition the horrors that Africans (especially women and children) have faced and continue to confront daily in too many troubled spots on the continent.
But Agnes’s story is not the primary tale of the difficulty of sustaining love during the unspeakable horrors of civil war. Forna has wrapped her central characters into a complicated palimpsest where just about the time one of them appears to be on the cusp of genuine love, the possibility is suddenly erased only to reveal an earlier relationship which was the true love of that person’s life. There’s Elias Cole, for example, an old man relating his uncontrollable passion for Sattia, a woman who is already married to another man?one of his colleagues at the university where both of them teach. After Sattia’s husband dies in what is passed off as a fluke accident when he’s temporarily held in detention, Cole marries Sattia and they have a daughter, named Mamakay, who is somewhere in her early twenties at the beginning of the story.
But none of these facts are quite what they appear to be because Cole?one of several voices in the novel?is largely distorting aspects of his past, especially his involvement with Sattia and her first husband, even his relationship to Mamakay.
Further, Mamakay becomes involved with Adrian, who has a wife and a daughter back in England. And then there’s the conflicted relationship that both of them share with Kai Mansary, who is a gifted Sierra Leonean surgeon, though largely self-trained because of the hundreds?if not thousands?of surgeries he preformed during the country’s war when he was one of the few surgeons who remained in the country.
I have intentionally described The Memory of Love avoiding the intricacies of the plot as the story loops back and forth in time, recording events before the debacle, during the warfare, and afterwards. Multiple narrators add to the rich complexity of the narrative, all variations on the possibilities of love during and after times of unbelievable trauma. Adrian asks himself late in the story, “How does a man whose task in life is to map emotions, their origins and their end, how does such a man believe in love?” but his question is applicable to all of the other characters I have mentioned and the ways in which their paths overlap, merge together, and then suddenly split apart again.
The Memory of Love is the most significant novel that I have read since Orhan Pamuk’s The Museum of Innocence, published two years ago. The situations that Forna’s characters find themselves trapped in can destroy the most powerful human relationships that bind men and women together, and yet this is an extraordinary meditation on the capacity than men and women have to survive in the midst of the most overwhelming obstacles that war and all its attendant violence and degradation can throw in front of them. Aminatta Forna’s The Memory of Love is the first major novel of the new decade.
The Memory of Love
By Aminatta Forna
Atlantic Monthly Press, 496 pp., $24.95
CHARLES R. LARSON is Professor of Literature at American University, in Washington, D.C. His books include The Ordeal of the African Writer.