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Merle

Merle

The Memory of Love - Aminatta Forna On the one hand, this is a well-written book with good character development and a solid sense of place. On the other, it has some structural issues that make me hesitate to recommend it.

The Memory of Love is set in present-day Sierra Leone, and follows three men: a dying academic, Elias, relates his life story (or a version of it) to a British psychologist, Adrian, who meanwhile befriends a local surgeon, Kai. It is a character-driven book, gradually moving deeper into the characters’ lives as it goes; Adrian learns more about the country while Elias and Kai must deal with their own baggage from the country’s recent civil war.

On the one hand, this book deserves better than three stars; Forna is a clearly talented writer. The book has believable characters and is full of acute observations, and the writing style is solid. It also has an unmistakable thematic depth, and while it can't offer an easy solution for a place like Sierra Leone, it makes sharp observations about what the country needs and what it doesn't. Dealing with the aftermath of the war rather than the war itself is an unusual but mature choice: the book never wallows in easy drama, but instead focuses on how violence changes people and the society they live in. The point is not to show us atrocities, but to show us people, and it does that well. I can understand how it’s won some prizes.

But.... the plot, the structure, the point-of-view. First, if you do read this, be aware that the first 150 pages or so are a tough slog: not only because they focus heavily on the odious Elias (who fortunately recedes as the novel goes on) and his stalking of a happily married woman, but because the story is told through a slow and sometimes monotonous accretion of detail, building very gradually through mundane events and description. Second, the structure seems oddly lopsided in places: Elias dominates the early part of the book despite having little importance later; a key character, Mamakay, doesn’t appear until about halfway through; the subplot revolving around Agnes, one of Adrian’s patients, is abruptly dropped at the 2/3 mark.

As for point-of-view, while Forna writes the male characters very believably (well, if you want to take my word for it), the book suffers from not including any of the women’s POVs. The most important female characters, while they seem to be interesting people, are seen entirely through the eyes of men who are attracted to them and with whom they are fairly reticent, which leaves them less than completely three-dimensional. The ending initially seemed too equivocal to me as well, but I've since learned through another reader's sleuthing that the resolution is there.... but blink and you'll miss it.

So in the end, I’m not sure whether I’d recommend this or not.... give it a go if it sounds like your thing, but read the sample before you buy.