Two physicians in Africa examine the scars left behind by war
Writer Aminatta Forna spent her childhood in the United Kingdom and Sierra Leone, the daughter of an African father and Scottish mother. Her father Mohamed trained as a physician in Scotland, but filled with hope created by post-colonial possibilities, he returned to Africa with his new family, working at first in a clinic, then holding political office as minister of finance. In 1974, he was charged and then executed for treason. Forna explored this period brilliantly in her thoughtful memoir The Devil That Danced on the Water; and she revisits the time and place in her new novel The Memory of Love, a striking study of the past and present of a country whose name calls up twisted images of beautiful beaches, blood diamonds and child soldiers.
Forna’s complex novel revolves around the lives of two doctors in contemporary Sierra Leone. Adrian Lockhart, a British psychiatrist, has come to the city convinced that his work in post-traumatic stress disorders will be of great help to its troubled citizens. Kai Mansaray is an orthopedic surgeon born and raised in Sierra Leone. His parents and most of his friends have emigrated; though he toys with the idea of leaving himself, he can’t commit.
Each man has a caseload that connects him to a wide network of survivors whose mental and physical ailments are also metaphors for war’s lingering effects. Kai literally has to break the legs of one of his patients whose limbs are so misshapen he cannot walk. Adrian is drawn to a woman who periodically loses all sense of herself and wanders through the countryside as if in a trance. Most pertinent to the novel, Adrian’s elderly patient Elias Cole is a survivor of the country’s turbulent history. A low-level academic during the late 1960s, he fell in love with a colleague’s glamorous wife, and his obsession led him to actions he has spent decades justifying to himself.
The Memory of Love looks hard at the scars that civil war leaves behind. The city’s dusty streets are filled with the walking wounded: perpetrators living among their victims, women immobilized by fears of assault, men like Cole searching for absolution. Forna is reluctant to leave any motive unexamined, and as the novel sweeps from the radical campus politics of the 1960s to the traumatized population of the current day, the prose occasionally drags. The Memory of Love is an ambitious novel, but one that richly rewards the committed reader.