Aminatta Forna's latest Orange Prize-nominated book, The Memory of Love, tackles love and death in Sierra Leone,
Mixed up memories
An elderly man sits on his deathbed, recounting the moving old story of a woman he once loved. Entire books have been sustained by much less, particularly those with seemingly sentimental titles such as Aminatta Forna's The Memory of Love. But it's the sheer depth of the second novel from this 47-year-old writer of Sierra Leonean and Scottish heritage that won Forna the Commonwealth Writers Prize last year, and has earned her a shortlisting for next month's 2011 Orange Prize for Fiction. Yes, it's a tale of obsessive love. But Forna, a judge for this year's Caine Prize for African Writing - widely regarded as the African Booker - also takes in the aftermath of political unrest and civil war that fractured and brutalised Sierra Leone in the 1960s and 1990s, telling an intimate story of how a nation deals with its shocking, vivid memories.
Forna has had to confront some of those memories herself. Her 2002 debut, The Devil that Danced on the Water, was a memoir tracking her upbringing in Scotland, but more powerfully the execution of her father for treason in Sierra Leone, when she was just 10. Forna returned to her father's homeland to try to find the real story behind his death and discovered a fragile country trying to recover from civil war. "There was quite a lot of soul searching going on," she says now. "People were very open with me and it seemed to have an extraordinary effect, because it provoked discussions about their own culpability."
In some ways, The Memory of Love is a fictional sequel to that memoir. It returns to Sierra Leone to find that, a few years on, such openness has been replaced by an uneasy silence. The elderly man, Elias Cole, is a retired academic, recounting his story of Sierra Leone in the 1960s to an English psychiatrist, Adrian Lockheart. But in reviewing his own personal history he edits out the betrayals that give the book its narrative drive.
"Unless Adrian challenges him, Elias will give him a story that will be repeated every time Adrian talks about his time in the country," explains Forna. "And if you think about this going on in millions of stories, that's how history is reshaped. If you go to South Africa now, will you find one person who was pro-apartheid?
"So I wanted to explore this idea that something happened in Sierra Leone which people were part of, but then denied on a mass scale. They closed down, they started rewriting the narrative in their minds."
What's fascinating is that, from the feedback Forna has received, The Memory of Love is being read completely differently from country to country. Whereas many western readers, unused to the notion of violent conflict in their homeland, will probably empathise with Adrian's struggle to comprehend this "exotic" African state, the book works on a deeper level for those who have experienced and had to deal with that sort of violence.
"For me it's not about whether you're white or black; it's whether you've been through this or not," she says. "And not one German reader has failed to understand what I am exploring with this book, for example. They've had to rehearse the questions of guilt and blame, with what happened in the concentration camps. It's been incredibly successful in Spain, too, and it must be because they can appreciate the situation having gone through this incredible 50-year silence about their civil war. It's only now that their children are 30 or 40 and want to know what happened to their grandparents that the stories are coming out."
The Memory of Love seems to be, then, a complex book about healing - be that of a nation or an individual - and not only because the modern sections are set in a hospital. It's to Forna's credit that one of its real successes is to examine whether western notions of how to deal with post traumatic stress disorder actually work in somewhere like Sierra Leone. Somehow, she writes about such issues without ever making the book read like some dry, academic text. So Adrian thinks, initially, that he can transpose the techniques and theories he learnt in the UK to a country recovering from civil war. The Memory of Love clearly argues that such an approach is impossible - not least because, when the war was over, people had to live alongside those who had committed appalling acts.
One of the most distressing storylines features a woman called Agnes, who returns from a refugee camp to find that her daughter has unknowingly married the man who killed her husband. It almost seems too contrived, too Shakespearean, to be realistic, but it's based on a true story.
"I wanted to ask what that kind of situation would do to you," says Forna. "The basic discussion that is had in the Sierra Leonean mental health community is that life there isn't a condition that needs to be treated. So in the book, Adrian has to stop placing his experiences at the centre of everything and see the world differently, see it from the point of view of the people who are experiencing it."
Indeed, The Memory of Love is, if nothing else, a warning against judging difficulties throughout the world by western standards.
"I gave a reading in America where someone was referring to a scene in the book where a boy with a cancerous leg is sitting in a wheelbarrow outside the hospital," she remembers. "He called it an 'exotic and deeply unusual image'. Brilliantly, I didn't have to say anything. An African in the audience said 'that's not unusual at all'. And if you look at the world in percentages, who's normal? The person who grows up in quiet suburbia or people who have experienced war or repression?"
It's a salient point - and Forna won't have anyone call her own background unusual either, even though its interesting and sometimes devastating twists and turns have informed her impressive writing.
"I get a bit frustrated about the confusion between my fiction and my life," she admits. "When you write about a world that westerners aren't familiar with, they will equate that world with your life. And my response is always, 'hang on a minute - there are millions of people who went through this in Sierra Leone'."
And it's through the eyes of the book's third narrator, the local surgeon Kai Mansaray, that this becomes so evident. Like Cole, he is tormented by the loss of a relationship as well as the horrors he witnessed in everyday life, but Kai is a positive, enduring force of nature despite his dreams of fleeing to practise in America.
"I think it is a positive book because, without wanting to give too much away, he ends up representing the future of the country. So to me at least, it has a hugely hopeful ending," Forna says of a novel that is, in the end, moving rather than distressing. The neat coincidences and connections make this a much more satisfying read than its traumatic premise might suggest.
"Well, I am a storyteller first and a writer second," Forna laughs. "I just love telling stories."