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Powerful Story and Beautiful Prose Marred by Flawed Structure
on 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.