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I am Muctaru Wurie from Freetown, Sierra Leone. I blog on a variety of subject from my homeland and most of my post feature well researched stories I do.

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How A Writer Was Able To Reflect A Nation’s Failed Dreams In a Unique Manner

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BOOK REVIEW: The Memory of Love Review By Aminatta Forna

Going through this amorous piece of writing from Aminatta Forna, I was awfully disappointed by reading a Sierra Leonean book in which the author was skilfully able to depict a war torn Sierra Leone and simultaneously inject a starry-eyed and romantic subject matter in a somehow disordered and traumatic post war Freetown. As a Sierra Leonean I was expecting another romantic love story that has an ideal setting evading the nation’s recent history; social insecurity and problems of a city that still bear the resemblance of war and the very complex process of recovery from the bestial events it had witnessed. If you are a romantic and the Mills and Boon type, you better find another book. Don’t be tricked by the title of this book, a plain verdict of the book is that it marvellously mirrors the struggles and desires of a country since independence to the initial post war period.

It is rather fascinating that the author Aminatta Forna deliberately positioned up a medical doctor of mentality (Dr Lockheart) and another that heals human body (Dr Kai Mansaray).  And within these two leading characters, he placed a remorseful academic who has regretted most of his life. This is the most pivotal combination that the author wilfully uses to metaphorically portray the nation of Sierra Leone after independence; just like the hopes of a young educated man, the hopes of the country was high after independence. And the educated man has the capacity to progress, like a richly endowed country like us. But decades later despite having the help of a foreign physician (which can represent the loads of foreign aid and help) and a talented and hardworking local Sierra Leonean doctor, Dr Kai Mansaray (whose role epitomises the many hardworking and qualified Sierra Leonean doing their best) the country still bleed and struggle with a bleak future.

The story which is set in the Freetown around 2002, soon after the end of the gory civil war gives you a remarkable example of a how a dexterous writer can bring together contrasting stories of four different individuals that interweave across two generations; one of the leading characters is Elias Cole, a Sierra Leonean who was a lecturer in modern political history at Fourah Bay College.

Elias Cole who is an academic fell in love with Saffia, a stunning and enchanting wife of his colleague and fellow academic, Julius. At a time when Sierra Leoneans had higher hopes just after gaining independence from Britain. Many, including academics like Elias had higher hopes. The hopes of those days were exemplified by Elias in some of his notes in which he witnessed men landing on the Moon and everybody then had high hopes for the future. But sadly for Elias, all his romantic hopes and dreams now looks like an empty memory of unfulfilled love. Thirty years later, and with months left to live, Elias Cole recounts the affair with a despondent frame of mind as if he was trying to take the pain off before he dies. Instead he was now faced with the stark reality of the present to tell a well-meaning and rather lost English psychiatrist, Adrian Lockheart, of how the high expectations of that age came to have been lost. But similar to the ghost of a severed limb of many of the amputated strolling around Freetown around that time; the remembrance of expectations and lost romance of the past lingers.

But Elias’ biography reveals how in a degenerated post war society as Sierra Leone, the private life is never less than political. Refined and well-expressed, he now finds an ability for truthfulness that had evaded him for most of a life spent with compromise and unremarkable, but ultimately tragic betrayal. Elias wasn’t a bad man, but he had been what is known in Krio as ‘lay belle’ collaborator with the dictatorship that mismanaged Sierra Leone and which eventually paved the way for the rebellion that further destroyed a country that was already facing massive developments problems. However, he was portrayed by the author as an ordinary man who found it hard to rise to the task of the amazing times that faced him.

Throughout my experience of reviewing Sierra Leonean books, I have never seen a writer successfully blending the complexities of Sierra Leone socio-political settings that dates back to the early post independence history up to the post war period. In what look like a simple but brilliantly presented manner Aminatta Fornah was able to build this history from four principal voices in The Memory of Love; English psychiatrist, Adrian Lockheart, Elias Cole, the Sierra Leonean academic and Kai Mansaray, one of Lockheart’s best friend who is a local surgeon. And Mamakay, who happen to be the daughter of Elias, ended up having an affair with Adrian. Adrian is the leading protagonist and channel through which we stumble upon the stories of the others. Despite their different backgrounds and origins, their individual accounts interlace and always tend to flow together in a society that was already facing the appalling consequences of dictatorship and conflict.

Adrian Lockheart’s main job in Sierra Leone was a psychologist, who was in the country to help heal people’s disturbed mentality, but paradoxically finds himself desperately incapable to a circumstance where the overwhelming majority of people are suffering post traumatic stress disorder. Even though, he was quickly sensitive to the challenges that surround him and even threaten his own state of mind, Adrian was astounded that the average Sierra Leonean was surprisingly resilient and adaptive to what seems to him as a hard and unusual way of living.

Lockheart who left behind a deteriorating matrimonial home and a young daughter back home in the United Kingdom refused to admit to some of his disbelief about whether he can be able to help people in the country heal their trauma and drug abuse problems.

He seemed prepared to confront the challenges he is faced with. Elias Cole, who was Lockheart’s only private patient was on the other hand ready to offer his narrative of his experience and dreams from the 1960s to present day Sierra Leone. Their meetings shaped much of the book’s storyline; and it appears as if Elias was enjoying his painful recounts to a stranger who sought to heal his illness.

Lockheart’s other confidant is a local surgeon, Kai Mansaray who specialises in orthopaedic reconstruction. He has no shortage of patients – there are various types of wounded and mutilated people flocking to him for treatments. Kai Mansaray, like Lockheart and Cole is just tormented as much by the loss of love as by the everyday horror he witness from the influx of cases he regularly handled. Some of his patients die even before he touches them.

The reality of his work drained his capacity for making genuine relationships; he feels the lost love of his life like the many amputated people around town feel their ghost limbs. May be that was the key reason for his endeavour to leave Sierra Leone for the United States.

As the story unravels, we begin to see also how the lives of the three men at the heart of the story are linked by the love of a single woman; Mamakay. The characters all seems so zealous, when they love, the characters do so enviously, because they tend to be aware how short-lived romance can be. Love selfishly disappears from the characters when it is at the epic level, like the love between Kai Mansaray and the beautiful Nenebah, or between Adrian and the Elias’ daughter Mamakay.

The author who claimed she talked to Sierra Leone renowned Psychiatrist, Dr Edward Nahim and other doctors across Sierra Leone acknowledged that this was a work of fiction but one that she tried to relate to the reality on the ground by doing a lot of research before writing the book. It is important to note that Aminatta Fornah’s father was one of Sierra Leone’s most brilliant politicians and a former Finance Minister under Siaka Stevens who was later hanged on July 19, 1975, for an alleged coup attempt against the latter. She was only 11 when her father was executed, but that might well be the beginning of an experience that led her to put this book together. According to The Patriotic Vanguard: “The piteous spectacle outside Pademba prison, where the men (Sorie Forna and 14 others) who had been killed by hanging were displayed for about an hour to send a strong message, sent shock waves throughout Sierra Leone and even beyond.”

In The Memory of Love, Forna develops her story in attention grabbing ways – notwithstanding the horrible cases of amputated arms and blood dripping wounds, Dr Kai Mansaray is faced with his job seems easier that Dr Lockheart because he can at least place limbs back together. Lockheart’s literary collection of neuroses and instinctive feel for human motivation are left not good enough by the immeasurable spitefulness of the cases he comes up against, and it shows how difficult demented minds can be to heal. Especially that of Agnes; a woman having been away at a refugee camp returned to find that her lovely daughter has married her husband’s killer. Quietness, which means looking at the horrible past and turning a blind eye, just seems the only way of surviving in Sierra Leone.

The title of this smartly written book, The Memory of Love at the end carries the message of lust of a feeling that almost dodged all of the four central characters on the book. As indicated by Adrian’s admission in the book: “Not love. Something else, something with a power that endures. Not love, but a memory of love.”

Written by Muctaru Wurie

June 11, 2010 at 1:32 pm