Aminatta Forna grew up in her father’s native Sierra Leone during the years preceding its devastating civil war. Awarded the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize in 2011, her novel Memory of Love
begins in 2001, at the dawn of peace after ten years of civil war, and grapples with how survivors of widespread wartime atrocities cope with their collective trauma. Sierra Leone’s civil war between government forces and rebel insurgents began in 1991, left fifty thousand people dead, and displaced 2.5 million others. The novel’s setting is vague, but could well be Freetown, the capital of Sierra Leone. In the city hospital, the lives of Elias Cole, Adrian Lockheart, and Kai Mansaray converge as they each seek to escape their troubled pasts.
The novel opens in the hospital room of a dying retired history professor, Elias Cole, who, in his own voice, unburdens his memories on his psychiatrist, Dr. Adrian Lockheart. Revisiting the late 1960s when he was a young academic, Elias foregrounds the pivotal moment that cements his future. One evening in January 1969, he meets Saffia Kamara, the wife of his colleague, Julian, and is transfixed by her beauty. From that day forward, he is obsessed with her. He ingratiates himself into the Kamaras’ social life, eventually securing invitations to their house where he meets Julian’s friends, Ade and Kekura.
These are politically tumultuous times as the country’s nascent post-colonial government teeters between coups. Julian, Ade, and Kekura are arrested on suspicion of anti-government activities. Elias is jailed as well due to his association with them, but in exchange for his release, he surrenders his diaries, which contain accounts of their conversations. Julian dies in prison, and Elias marries Saffia, though she does not love him. They have a daughter, but Saffia remains indifferent towards Elias. He retreats into an affair with a former girlfriend.
Aside from the bedridden Elias, Adrian has few patients. Recently arrived from London, where he has left a wife and daughter, Adrian aspires to mend the war-fractured psyches of the country’s people. But he finds his “talking cure,” or Western psychology’s preoccupation with verbalizing mental anguish, falls flat with these Africans. They don’t want to talk about their unbearable experiences; they want medication. When the director of the city’s mental hospital tells him that ninety-nine percent of the country’s population suffers from PTSD, Adrian starts to see the folly in thinking he could return his patients to a “normal” state of mind. Normal, he learns, is relative.
By any definition, Agnes, another occasional hospital patient, is not normal. She checks herself in and out of the hospital, staying only long enough for Adrian to suspect a case of dissociative fugue, a rare post-traumatic disorder that presents with recurring wanderings from home and confusion about one’s identity. Adrian develops a rather mercenary interest in Agnes, anticipating a name-making publication if he can treat her and report his findings. Before he can make any headway, however, Agnes leaves the hospital again.
Meanwhile, Adrian becomes friends with a young orthopedic surgeon Kai Mansaray. Haunted by his own unspeakable memories, which cause nightmares and insomnia, Kai throws himself into his work mending machete-severed limbs to repress his own demons. After Adrian’s ill-fated encounter with Agnes’s family while on an excursion with Kai and his nephew, Kai discourages Adrian from meddling in Agnes’s situation.
Two people from Kai’s university years in the early 1990s resurface in his life. One, his friend and fellow medical student Tejani, returns in the form of letters from the U.S. urging Kai to join him there. The other is Nenebah, a woman he loved intensely, but political upheavals separated them. Her father, complicit with the oppressive government, tricked her into identifying fellow student anti-regime activists, who were then expelled or jailed. When Nenebah discovered her father’s deception, she cut ties with him, left school, and became a musician. But now she reappears in Kai’s life with a new name, Mamakay, and a new lover, Adrian. Kai doesn’t reveal to Adrian his past with Mamakay.
It becomes clear that Elias’s narratives of his past are not therapeutic exercises in closure but attempts to manipulate the facts about his shameful history. Elias, it turns out, is the father that betrayed Mamakay (Nenebah); she tells Adrian, “He’s using you to write his own version of history.” The true – or truer – version is that Elias listened as Julian died of an asthma attack in the jail cell next to him and didn’t speak up. He cooperated with a repressive regime by naming campus activists. He was with his girlfriend when his wife, Saffia, died in a car crash. Mamakay, whose mother expressed her mistrust of Elias before she died, cannot reconcile with her father.
Mamakay becomes pregnant with Adrian’s child and dies giving birth. Kai confesses his love for Mamakay, finally agreeing to try the “talking cure” advocated by Adrian to relieve his psychological suffering. Using a technique of psychoanalysis, Adrian accesses Kai’s tormenting memory of being abducted when rebels invaded the hospital, watching them rape and kill a nurse, being raped himself and then thrown from a bridge and left for dead. That Kai crosses this bridge at the end of the novel and decides not to leave for the U.S., suggests he has healed to some degree.
Adrian returns to London and his failed marriage, leaving his newborn daughter with Kai. Kai visits Agnes’s village and pieces together her story from whispering neighbors: Agnes’s daughter unwittingly married the rebel who killed Agnes’s husband. Intolerable as it is, Agnes cannot tell her daughter.
Not telling, or silence, as a survival strategy for those who have endured trauma is a significant theme in Forna’s novel. It does admit exceptions, such as Kai’s case, when traditional Western narrative therapy succeeds. But those exceptions don’t mitigate the novel’s skepticism toward foreign aid efforts. On her website dedicated to fostering local initiatives in her hometown Rogbonko, Forna writes, “We think Africa has all the experts it needs – they’re the people who live there.”