I have just finished listening to ‘The Memory of Love’, on an audiobook read by Kobna Holdbrook-Smith. This powerful story won the Commonwealth Prize for Best Book of 2011. It was recommended by my daughter Beth, who has a great eye for a good book.
As ever, my experience of listening was coloured by the ‘reader’ – his or her interpretation of pace, voice and emotion inevitably influence the listener’s perceptions. At first, this was a chore. The book begins slowly and is read slowly. If reading, I might have been tempted to start to ‘speed read’ – listening while gardening, my attention slipped in and out of the story. We are in the company of an English psychologist, Adrian, who is on some kind of placement in a Sierra Leonean (we only find out which country we are in much later) hospital, listening to an old man, Juilius, well-educated and perceptive, talking about a woman he loved, or rather, coveted – the wife of a colleague and friend. This slow pace is maintained as the author skillfully weaves the other important characters into the story. Her descriptive writing gives a really close sense of place. Her words words paint a fine picture. Adrift in his own life, Adrian becomes more and more caught up in the lives of the much more real people with whom he now shares his life – the aid workers, expat medical staff, war victims and above all Julius, Kai and Mama K. I found myself constantly impressed by the quality of the writing. It is a cleverly constructed story, woven together with intelligence, based on deep knowledge of the country, its people and the work of the main protagonists (doctor, history academic, psychologist). Yet as the story progressed, and the events more urgent, more violent, more tragic, I only felt outside. I was aware of myself, looking at the author as puppeteer, her hands too visible in the actions of her people, her eyes to readily seen in her descriptions of what they could see and hear. I felt a little manipulated.
Then my feelings began to change. I saw the book through different eyes. I saw author and book together. Looking back it is easy to see the turning point. I looked up Aminatta Forna on the internet and as a result I knew that this was a very personal book. Her father, a doctor, politician and an Amnesty prisoner of conscience, was executed on trumped-up charges in 1975; she, born in Scotland, has been actively involved with Sierra Leone as it emerged from its decade of darkness, when bloody civil war was waged by child soldiers. Now I understood her deep insight into the issues raised by the lives of Julius and Mama K, Adrian and Kai, her understanding of them and the place where they lived. I saw author and book together. Her own story gave her the right to be taken seriously in this story. I no longer felt manipulated, emotions moved around by some clever writer, dropping from the sky to observe and report. I felt invited to share. I cannot now wait to read her earlier non-fictional memoir, in which she writes of her father and his country, The Devil that Danced on Water.
Although I ended up powerfully moved by the book, and the dilemmas and challenges which life threw at her characters, I also saw it in a comparative perspective. My own volunteer experience offered some insight. I recognised that perspective of the recent ‘visitor’, dropping into the lives of others. But much more powerful was the comparison I was constantly making of post-trauma Sierra Leone with post-trauma Cambodia – so many similarities in these two small countries, countries the Foreign Office calls ‘fragile, post-conflict States’. And beyond these countries, so many other people in the former Yugoslavia, Palestine and Israel, Afghanistan, South Africa. The contrast between the privileged freedom to chose, the freedom of those of us born into post-World War 2 Europe, and the fated hand dealt to so many in the second half of the 20th Century. Yet underneath and through and above it all, hope. Hope expressed best in community. Hope in reaching out and believing in a future worth building. Hope in recognising the complexity that has brought us to where we are, and the need to turn and face the future together.
I recommend this book highly. It has depth and rich quality in the writing. It has depth and insight in the story. It touches the emotions and brings hope.