Reading African War Stories: A Review of Aminatta Forna’s The Memory of Love (2010)

The Memory of Love (2010)

I filmed a short review of this book for Instagram and in the process of trying to best capture the book I said, “it’s a mix between Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Half of a Yellow Sun (2006) and the book turned movie Last King of Scotland”. I don’t think there’s a better way to summarize this book.

What’s the book about?

A British Psychologist, Adrian, moves to Sierra Leone to work at a local public hospital after the civil war, there he meets a dying man, Elias Cole whose life spans the pre-civil war years, the civil war and post-civil war years. Adrian also befriends a Sierra Leonean doctor Kai and falls in love with a Sierra Leonean woman MamaKay, both of whom add context and nuance to Elias Cole’s recollections as they have crossed paths in their “past lives”. In this unpredictable and fragile political climate, old relationships are broken, and new relationships are built but not without the trauma of the past hanging over them.

The major themes in this book are:

· Betrayal

· Love

· Loss

· How we remember history as well as our part in it

The Memory of Love (2010) is similar to Half of a Yellow Sun (2006) because of the personal connection to political unrest and war in their respective countries. Aminatta Forna’s father Mohamed Forna was a Sierra Leonean Doctor and politician who was executed for protesting government corruption in 1975. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie also draws on her own family history and how her own family was affected by the Biafran Civil War for Half of a Yellow Sun (2006). Both writers make you feel like you are right at the centre of this piece of history that is unfolding. I have never been to Nigeria or Sierra-Leone, but I felt and still feel an incredible familiarity with the people and places mentioned. Adrian, the protagonist and psychologist is able to synthesize the collective but unique trauma of the Sierra Leonean populace.

Where’s the Last King of Scotland connection?

In The Memory of Love (2010), a British psychologist visits Sierra Leone after the civil war. In the Last King of Scotland’s main character is a Scottish Medical Doctor who visits Uganda during dictator, Idi Amin’s rule. A scene that has always stayed with me from the movie is one where the doctor soon after arriving in Uganda meets a woman on a bus and has sexual intercourse with her during a stop. The nature of interracial relationships between European expats and black African women is layered and complicated. The Scottish doctor eventually falls for one of Idi Amin’s wives. In both this movie and The Memory of Love, the black women who engage in these relationships are presented as exotic or whatever the African term for orientalist is. Half of A Yellow Sun (2010) has a similar storyline, but it is not the main storyline, so I do not feel the need to criticize and call attention to it. That said, Sierra Leone’s history is different to that of most Sub-Saharan countries, Sierra-Leone is a former British colony made up of former slaves of African descent from Canada and Britain. The trajectory of Sierra-Leonean culture and traditions is likely different from the rest of Sub-Saharan Africa in ways I do not understand. My perception or perhaps my preference for how African women should be presented is only experience-based but not fact-based.

When I was not cringing at the white British doctor’s obsession with a young black African woman, I genuinely enjoyed the book. The story was well written. There were numerous small characters that were forgettable but important to the development of the story, I found myself having to go back a few chapters to refamiliarize myself with recurring but minor characters. I found myself laughing at times, which was an unexpected but welcome surprise. I felt deeply connected to Kai’s character, out of all the characters he feels incredibly real to me, like I could go to Sierra Leone today and find him at the Ocean Club. Juxtaposed with the expatriate doctor Adrian, Kai is refreshingly sincere and he blends into the history and stories of Sierra Leone. This is probably because the character of the young doctor is moulded after a real person, Forna’s own father.

There is no doubt that Aminatta Forna is a formidable writer whose writing continues to hold space for all the people who were affected by the political unrest and eventual civil war in Sierra Leone. I am not convinced the British Psychologist was important to tell the story. I initially rated the book 3.9/5 but after writing this review, I have changed my mind. I will now rate it 4/5.