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on 22 July 2010
"The Memory of Love" is a story set in Freetown, Sierra Leone featuring two triangular relationships separated by a generation, with parallel accounts set during the political unrest in 1969 at the time of the Apollo 11 moon landing and during the period 1999 to 2001 following the brutal civil war.
The earlier era features Julius Kamara and Elias Cole who are both lecturers at the same University. Whereas Julius is charismatic,politically motivated and an idealist, Elias Cole is traditional, politically disengaged, and possessed with only mediocre talent.These two characters have only one thing in common; their love for Saffia.
Julius' life and fate is dictated by his political ambitions and that of Elias by his infatuation with Saffia.
Move forward 30 years and Adrian a disenchanted Psychologist from London takes advantage of an overseas government sponsored post in Sierra Leone to research Post Traumatic Stress disorder. However, underpinning his decision to take up this post, is his need to escape from a stagnating marriage and to discover what he really wants out of life.He befriends Kai Mansaray a dedicated and accomplished young trauma surgeon who works tirelessly at the city hospital.
Like so many other victims of the civil war, Kai too is suffering from PTSD played out as recurrent nightmares and insomnia. Young hopes,plans and romances are destroyed and by a sad twist of fate work to Adrian's advantage.
Adrian is the centre point of the story which oscillates between the city hospital where Elias Cole, now terminally ill, talks through his earlier life at the university in an attempt to seek absolution, and the local mental asylum.At the asylum Adrian gains much of his experience in PTSD where he works under the sceptical guidance of Dr Attila a senior Psychiatrist and Ileana a romanian Psychologist.
And so the story weaves between tales of aspiration and love, shattered dreams and tragedy as the various components of their lives are teased out.
The strength of this book lies in its beautifully evocative prose which instantly transports you to the tropical heat and monsoon rains of Freetown Sierra Leone, and to the well researched and intelligently constructed story all of which create a sympathetic and powerful piece of literature worthy of the highest accolade.
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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
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on 16 May 2010
Aminatta Forna's memoir (The Devil That Danced on the Water) was, for me, an introduction to the recent history of Sierra Leone that went far beyond the headlines... it was a brave and true account. I enjoyed her first novel (Ancestor Stones)with its interwoven stories, but The Memory of Love book had me ignoring children, skipping meals and sneaking an extra half hour during my lunch break so I could spend more time with the characters. It's beautiful. She takes the reader deep into the heart of a story of two generations, betrayal, love and longing...and in these pages one travels to another place - to Free Town at the heady time of Independence, through the country's darkest times of war and, in the 'present day', with its traumatised people as they try to rebuild their city, their country and their lives. It's impossible not to fall in love with these characters - so intimately does the reader come to know them. It's Forna's skill that throughout, the politics (both personal and historic) remain as complicated as we know life to be - whereever we are. This is her best book yet...
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on 30 July 2011
I just wish this compelling and moving story had been told in fewer pages! Never having read anything by Aminatta Forna before, I downloaded The Memory of Love based on its many 5-star ratings and because the subject intrigued me. Whilst enjoying the lyrical prose style I found the first 30% frustratingly slow, and very nearly gave up. However, I did persevere, though it wasn't until I was past the middle that it really began to grip me.

I was struck by the sensitive and unsensationalised recounting of unimaginable horrors and their consequences, and the hauntingly evocative sense of time and place. I would endorse the glowing comments of other reviewers and feel it has given me an insight into a world I previously knew nothing about.

I am reluctant to criticise a published author of great talent and emotional intelligence, and do so only to encourage anyone tempted to give up to stick with it - it will reward you!
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TOP 500 REVIEWERon 16 August 2011
This tale of the intertwined lives of three men living through the aftermath of a terrible civil war in 1990s Sierra Leone has the potential for a moving and thought- provoking drama.

It begins with Elias Cole as he suffers a slow painful death, haunted by memories of his obsessive love for Safia, the lovely wife of a charismatic colleague. Driven by the apparent desire to make some death-bed confession, but on his own terms, his calculating and manipulative personality is revealed.

Then there is Adrian, the introspective British psychiatrist with some vague urge to do good in a developing country struggling to recover from its shattered state. In fact, he is escaping from his marriage, for reasons that remain unclear. His affair with the beautiful Mamakay, who makes a sudden appearance well into the book, does not entirely convince me, and the guilt he feels for abandoning his wife and daughter is insufficiently explored.

Thirdly we have Kai, the young doctor traumatised by the horrors of the war, his nightmares alternating with nostalgic memories of his girlfriend Nenubah, whom I imagined for a long time to have perished tragically in the fighting. Kai makes the decision to emigrate to the States, lured by the encouragement of his best friend Tejani, but it is unlikely that he would do this without worrying more about the fate of Abass , the young nephew for whom he acts as a father. I also found the graphic descriptions of Kai conducting operations unnecessary - they serve only to give the author an opportunity to show off medical knowledge gained to give the book an authentic touch.

Forna creates a vivid impression of the scenery and way of life in Sierra Leone. There are many descriptive passages of haunting beauty, but also self-conscious exercises in creative writing. It may be intentional to create a slow pace in which fleeting impressions seem as meaningful as major events, but the constant focus on small details, say of Adrian watching a stranger play with her child on a Norfolk beach, distracts the reader too much from the thrust of the story and blurs the plot. For instance, the arrest of Julius, his subsequent fate, his wife Safia's reaction, and Elias Cole's acts of betrayal should be much more striking events, rather than buried in descriptions of other things. There should be more of a sense of impending unrest, say in Elias's Cole's account of past events.

It is probably quite brave, certainly challenging, for a female author to switch between the viewpoints and complicated lives of three male characters. However, this structure, together with continual moves back and forth in time with the frequent reporting of dramatic events, rather than enacting them "live", further combine to fragment the storyline and weaken the impact of any drama.

There is also the very irritating habit of changing tense from past to present and back. Perhaps the present tense is meant to give more of a sense of immediacy, which makes it odd that it is applied to descriptions, say of Kai scrubbing up for an operation, rather than his dramatic explanation of the reason for his trauma.

There are too many shadowy characters introduced only to drift away or storylines which remain underdeveloped, such as the case of Adrian's patient Agnes, his relationship with his mother, even with Ileana...I could provide many more examples. We seem to be involved in the plots of several novels, tangled together.

For me, the flawed structure became a real barrier to appreciating and admiring the work, which resembles a promising but sprawling draft in need of editing and reorganisation.
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on 6 December 2011
This is not an easy book at first. Its plot unfolds slowly and it takes a while, I'd say more or less a couple of chapters, to get into its dynamics. But if you are patient and keep reading, you'll soon find involved by its characters and its plot.
The story is set in Sierra Leone, and proceeds on two different time levels. On one hand the story of Elias, Saffia and Julius, set in 1969, the year of the man landing on the moon and of the first secret local turmoils among the people at university; on the other hand the story of Adrian and Kai set 30 years later, in 1999, after a 10-year-civil war that left unhealed wounds on the body and on the soul of thousands of devastated people. As the plot unravels, the two stories tend to converge and entwine more and more, as if all the pieces and all the characters were part of the same bigger jigsaw.
I personally liked the style of Aminatta Forna, though I recognize sometimes she indulges too much in delaying useful information in order to achieve a more spectacular effect in the following pages. But apart from that, I loved the story and I loved the characters, and I think that overall she succeeded in opening a useful window on one of our recent and already forgotten tragedies.
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on 19 April 2012
I love the title of this book and between that and the gushing reviews I hoped for far much more than I felt was delivered. I was disappointed that there was so little of the essence of Sierra Leone in the book. In fact it could have been set in any post war environment. Comparing this to 'cutting for Stone' which featured Ethiopia as almost another character I felt it was a missed opportunity to bring another aspect to the story. The concept of the memory of love as portrayed in the novel however is fascinating and the various love stories were interesting enough to hold my attention. But I felt what wasn't written left a huge emotional hole. Adrian was married and had a child yet he so easily forgot about them for a new love interest. Why? Somehow I felt that might have been a more interesting story - it certainly was something that needed to be investigated. To me the male characters lacked realism and a proper depth of understanding.

The perceptive descriptions of ex-pats along the way were wonderful, giving me a taste for the life of the outsiders in the country and the (more than likely very understandable and accurate) reactions of the locals.

For me the book was far too long and meandered needlessly at points. What was the purpose of the patient who was found wandering about regularly? So much of the book was taken up with her story which was subsequently dumped abruptly at the end. I would have either fleshed that out or left it out entirely. It winded up just being a long winded distraction by the end. The story could have been tighter with fewer coincidences and a little more soul.

Over all, a good book but not a great one. I wouldn't recommend it.
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on 20 July 2010
Aminatta Forna's The Memory of Love is a rollercoaster ride of emotions and ideas that gripped me from start to finish, and what a finish!

The Memory of Love is a beautifully crafted book by a writer whose intellectual and emotional intelligence shine through every page. She (Aminatta Forna) deploys phrases, metaphor, allusion and description like music carried on a warm coastal breeze as her characters weave in and out of each other's lives . . . gliding on a tide of an interwoven past and present. That this entails unforeseeable and shocking consequences gives the book an immense emotional punch.

This is one of the most compelling and intelligently written books I have read in a long time.
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on 2 May 2011
A slow start which made me question whether I wanted to continue, but soon enough Forna picks up the pace bringing the reader fully into the story. She has an amazingly beautiful style of writing in which she creates a detailed image of what is happening, and one can't but be absorbed into the story.

The dramatic exposures, intertwined life stories and a bitter sweet ending make this a must-read for all those who appreciate well-written and emotion-filled fiction; the best book I've ever read, a beautiful thought-provoking and life-changing story, and after you finish the book you'll feel like your soul is just a little empty as there is no more to read.
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on 18 May 2011
Aminatta Forna has been on my radar for a while but this is the first time I have read her. I thought I had a rough idea of what to expect from The Memory of Love. Most likely a well-written novel that would repay the effort I would have to put into it. A bit worthy and demanding, but educational about Sierra Leone, a country I know little about. Trouble is, you don't always feel up to making that effort so I resisted for a period.

So was it what I imagined? Certainly. It was all those things. But what I didn't expect was to encounter the best novel I have read this year. At the time of writing this is shortlisted for the 2011 Orange Prize. I had thought Emma Donoghue's gripping 'Room' was going to be a shoo-in but this is a much better book and would definitely get my vote. Forna's voice is self-assured and she doesn't put a foot wrong. She has a complete mastery of style and subject matter and her tone is calm and lyrical, even when recounting the most terrible atrocities. There is a strong narrative with a few twists, some of them you can see coming if you pay attention, but that doesn't detract from the novel's power. It's not about surprises though it has a few. It pulls you into its world. It reminded me a little of The English Patient though it's a long time since I read it so don't hold me to that.

Now for the gripes: Forna is fulsome in praise of her publisher, Bloomsbury, in the credits but their blurb on the back cover of my edition is clumsy and inaccurate. Here is a quote.

`As past and present intersect, Kai and Elias are drawn unwittingly closer by Adrian, a British psychiatrist with good intentions, and into the path of one woman'.

Apart from the badly constructed sentence, that's not what happens at all. Kai and Elias maintain their distance, and if you've read the book you'll know that these two men being `drawn' by Adrian into the path of the woman concerned makes no sense at all. Moreover, Forna makes it clear that Adrian is a psychologist not a psychiatrist. Two different professions. As for the final line, `...a heartbreaking story of ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances'. Could they not find a more well-worn cliché? Apologies for nit-picking but since Forna's own writing is so meticulously crafted it seems insulting to pin something so careless on to her masterpiece. They could at least have bothered to run it by her.

Whilst in Grumpy Old Woman mode, I will not refrain from commenting on the page at the end headed `A note on the type'. I am seeing more and more of these lately and find them irritating. It goes something like this:

The text of this book is set in Ultra Modish. This type was first used in the fifteenth century by a European printer you have never heard of. Ultra Modish could be ubiquitous or it could be obscure. Who cares? By drawing attention to it we demonstrate our commitment to Design. Don't bother checking your own fonts. Times New Roman is good enough for philistines. And don't expect to recognise it again. To the untrained eye it has no distinguishing features. If you were actually interested you could have looked it up on Wikipedia but we'll treat you to a history lesson because our marketing department thought it was a good idea.

Ok, enough moaning. Seriously good novel. If you haven't read it what on earth is stopping you?
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