Adrian Lockheart is a British psychologist working in Freetown, the capital city of Sierra Leone. For ten years the country has been torn apart by civil war and a large percentage of the population have been left suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. Adrian’s job is to help people cope in the aftermath of the war. One man, who set fire to people’s houses during the war is now haunted by the smell of burning meat. Another woman is showing symptoms of fugue – a rare condition which occasionally causes her to disappear from her everyday life and turn up in another place miles away from her home. But Elias Cole is the patient Adrian spends the longest with and who intrigues him more than any of the others.
Elias Cole is an elderly retired professor who is dying of lung disease and he relates to Adrian his memories of the woman he once loved: her name was Saffia and she was married to a fellow academic, Julius Kamara. As Adrian learns more about Elias and his relationships with both Saffia and Julius during the period of political unrest in the late 1960s, it becomes clear that Elias’s story may have an effect on Adrian’s own life. We also meet Kai Mansaray, a young surgeon at the hospital where Adrian works, who has been left traumatised by the war and is suffering from insomnia and recurrent nightmares. He and Adrian become friends but their friendship comes with its own set of obstacles that need to be overcome.
The Memory of Love is the first book I’ve read set in Sierra Leone. One of the great things about fiction is that it gives us the opportunity to learn about countries that we may otherwise have gone through our whole lives knowing very little about. The descriptions of life in Sierra Leone are beautifully written: the sights and sounds, the trees and flowers, the colours of the sky. I didn’t know anything about the history and politics behind the civil war but it wasn’t really necessary to have any prior knowledge – and even after finishing the book I didn’t feel I’d really learned much about the war itself. But what the book does do, and does very well, is show the effects the war had on the personal lives of the population, particularly the fear and uncertainty people felt, not knowing who they could and couldn’t trust.
I wish I could say I had loved this book, but I didn’t. It was extremely well written but after about 100 pages I was bored. I put the book aside for a few days and then picked it up again. This time I managed to finish it, but it still seemed to take forever to read. And towards the end, when the various threads of the story began to come together it all seemed a bit too convenient – too predictable, too many coincidences. But the fact that I didn’t enjoy this book probably says more about me as a reader than it does about The Memory of Love as a novel. It was too detailed and descriptive for me and I found it very, very slow. I do seem to be in the minority though, so maybe you’ll have better luck with it than I did!