Set primarily in the late 1990s in Sierra Leone, a time in which a brutal Civil War is being waged and over fifty thousand people killed, this novel comes as a surprise. Telling two tales of love in two different generations, the author is mightily challenged to be true to her setting and time periods while also allowing the love stories to develop naturally within this fraught environment. She accomplishes this, largely, by referring to the war only obliquely for most of the novel, with flashbacks by individual speakers providing details of the war and explaining how the memories of war have affected the behavior of characters whom the reader has come to know. A flash-forward which takes place in 2003, after the end of the war, occurs at the end to reconcile elements of the plot and themes.
As the novel opens, Elias Cole, a former professor and Dean of the university in Freetown, is now an elderly hospital patient, dying a slow disease which robs him of his breath. There, he is a patient of Adrian Lockheart, a British psychiatrist who has left his wife and daughter behind in England while he works for six months in the hospital near the university. Adrian quickly discovers that the dying Elias has memories that he is impelled to share about his life in the 1970s, many of these involving Saffia, the wife of Julius Kamara, a young professor. Old-fashioned story-telling conveys episodes from Elias's memories of his much younger life, and the author emphasizes from the beginning that it is with these three characters that the entire story really begins--Elias Cole, Julius Kamara, and Saffia.
A parallel narrative, with different main characters, takes place sometime around 2001, near the end of the war, with flashbacks to events of the late 1990s. Kai Mansaray, a brilliant surgeon befriends Adrian Lockheart. On one trip to visit Kai's family, Adrian's life is changed dramatically when he recognizes a former patient who has left the hospital without being fully treated. The war stories which have dramatically affected this patient's life--and that of Kai's family--are revealed, along with the lives of those who have had to spend two years or more in refugee camps. The brutality of the attacking soldiers is almost beyond belief: there are no "good guys" here--the two sides are equally brutal. Still, Adrian manages to fall in love.
The author's descriptions of the war are of events related to individual characters, but they are generalized in terms of the who, why, and when of warfare, and the author never really goes into the kind of detail which would distinguish this war from that of other African countries, including neighboring Liberia, under Charles Taylor. Nor does she mention the issue of Sierra Leone's "blood diamonds," which are said to have financed the rebel movement, both in Sierra Leone and in Liberia. No names of real historical characters surface here at all, and I often found myself wondering what the author's overall purpose was: A love story in the midst of war? A war story and its effects on lovers? Or a more fully developed examination of the overall power of love and its loss on a universal scale? The author seems to be aiming for all of these with the novel's length but not quite reaching her thematic goals, not quite integrating her many episodes and her large cast of characters with an over-arching structure. A strong novel in terms of emotion, this one would have benefited from editing much of the extraneous detail. Mary Whipple