Thursday, 21 July 2011

Conditional absolution and the last fifty pages

As the title of this review indicates, I thought this was a fantastic novel up until the last fifty pages, and then – abruptly, and to my own frustration and disappointment – I began to change my mind. I still think it is a good piece of work, but unfortunately the way Aminatta Forna handled the crucial closing section consolidated doubts that I’d had about the book before, doubts that I would have been willing to overlook if it hadn’t all come crashing down around me. As this is impossible to discuss without full spoilers for the plot of the novel, spoilers lie ahead – read at your own risk if you haven’t read The Memory of Love.

The book is set in 2001 in Freetown, Sierra Leone, and delicately and vividly charts the aftermath of the recent civil war. The central character is ostensibly Adrian Lockheart, an English psychatrist who has come to help the survivors work through their trauma and grief, but he is rather colourless, and I found myself far more involved in the stories of the two other major characters: Kai, an orthopedic surgeon, and Elias, a dying man who tells Adrian the events that unfolded thirty years ago when he fell in love with the wife of a colleague just before the country was swept up in a military coup.

As is probably clear from my previous reviews, characterisation is immensely important to me in a novel, as is a lack of preaching. I don’t believe fiction should come with a moral tacked on the end, although it can certainly deal with moral questions. And for the vast majority of this novel, Forna seems at no risk of straying into either of these pitfalls, although I would have to admit I was disappointed with her portrayal of the female characters. Elias’s lover, Saffia, and their daughter Nenebah, nicknamed Mamakay, are essentially the same person thirty years apart, and that person isn’t very interesting; in fact, she’s the stereotypical strong female, not allowed to have flaws, make jokes, or even speak all that much, unlike the men. Of course, Saffia and Mamakay suffer from being seen largely from the outside, idealised by their respective lovers – Elias, and Adrian and Kai – but this is a question that could have been addressed, and isn’t.

The reason the relative weakness of the female cast struck me so strongly in the last fifty pages of this novel, when it hadn’t before, was the part Adrian plays in its denoument. Mamakay is now pregnant, and he is planning to abandon – I don’t think the word is too strong – his wife and child in England in order to start a new life with her in Sierra Leone. He has also started to suspect that some of what the dying Elias has been telling him about his imprisonment during the military coup is not true, and confronts him about it. To be brief, it turns out that Elias is a bit of a coward, something that was foreshadowed earlier in his narrative. His friend Julius, Saffia’s husband, was imprisoned in the cell alongside him and he could hear that he was suffering an asthma attack, but didn’t dare protest to his guard, Johnson, in case he was never released, as he knows that Julius has been involved in protests. He hopes that Julius has his medication with him, but it turns out that he dies of the attack. Later, Elias rises in the university hierarchy through appeasing men like Johnson, and reports student political activity to the authorities after ensuring that his daughter is safe. His actions are unpleasant and show him to be a seriously flawed man, but he kept my sympathy under the full force of Adrian’s – and the author’s – judgement that he now suffers.

Adrian, who has never lived through a war or under military rule, feels that he can despise Elias, while not giving a thought to his abdication of responsibilities towards his own family. While his relationship with Mamakay fuels his judgement of her father, he scarcely seems to know her – and her death during childbirth handily saves him from having to make any difficult decisions. If this self-righteousness was portrayed as a failing of Adrian’s, it would be interesting – but my impression was that Forna was entirely behind Adrian’s viewpoint here, especially as we hear no more of Elias after this pivotal scene, and there are no more sections from his point of view that might qualify his actions. Disturbingly, in an earlier scene Adrian is fully able to forgive a war criminal who tossed a baby into a burning building, and even compares him favourably to Elias because he is honestly repentant, while Elias is still trying to justify himself. It jars horribly, because my impression from Elias’s narration was that he has not forgiven himself, and that he is suffering; although he marries Saffia after Julius’s death, he knows that she will never love him. Again, there remains the possibility that Forna was intentionally setting up this conflict, but my instinct is that she wasn’t. The narrative, as I’ve already noted, handles Adrian with soft gloves, making his moral decisions for him, whereas Elias is forced into the most difficult dilemmas; not only imprisoned at the same time as Julius, but imprisoned literally next to him; not only imprisoned next to him, but able to hear his coughs through the wall.

And this leads me back to the question of the female characters, who become idealised pawns largely because we are meant to come down on Adrian’s ‘side’. If Adrian (and Kai and Julius, to an extent) were presented more as human beings, rather than the paragons of virtue they become (despite Julius and Adrian’s more nuanced presentation earlier in the book), Adrian and Mamakay’s relationship would be further problematised than it is. Saffia’s random death in a car crash after her marriage to Elias also ties up loose ends rather too neatly; the reader is left wondering what her version of the story would be, were she around to tell it.

And so, instead of writing a largely positive review about a book I enjoyed, I’ve written a rant about those last fifty pages. It’s a shame, because Forna is a fine writer and her depictions of the aftermath of the conflict in Sierra Leone are utterly chilling. I just wish that she had ended her story in a different way, or, I suppose, made the ending rather less like a brick wall. It deserved its place on the Orange Prize shortlist, but I’m glad that it didn’t ultimately win.

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