Aminatta Forna has woven a rich, complex narrative that spans the last 40 years of Sierra Leone’s history. It opens in the present, with an old, ailing man, Elias, telling his story to Adrian. Adrian is a British psychologist, on temporary assignment at a hospital in Freetown, there to “help” but also to defibrillate his stalled career. Anyway, how do you help when “ninety-nine percent of the population [is] suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder”? As a local psychiatrist puts it, “You call it a disorder, my friend. We call it life.”
Through Elias’s story, we jump back to 1969, when he was a junior faculty at a local university. His story is intensely personal, becoming friendly with an outspoken colleague through an infatuation with that colleague’s wife, and at the same time getting wrapped up in the tumultuous and brutal politics of the succeeding decades. A third major character, a young, talented Sierra Leonean surgeon named Kai, befriends Adrian and has clearly been deeply scarred by the war, although the specific reasons only become clear later.
Forna doesn’t plant us in the center of Sierra Leone’s decade-long civil war. (This isn’t Ishmael Beah’s A Long Way Gone.) On the contrary, she expertly circles around it, pushing us closer, showing the atmosphere in the decades before as well as the deep, inescapable reverberations in contemporary Sierra Leone. Nor does she shy away from the war. The climax of the book places us at the very center of the trauma. The overall effect is powerful and affecting.
International visitors come under a critical eye: “They came to get their newspaper stories, to save black babies, to spread the word, to make money, to [f***] black bodies. They all had their reasons. Modern-day knights, each after his or her trophy, their very own Holy Grail.” Or, as one long-term resident from Romania puts it even more pointedly, “Do you know what the most popular white wine here is? … It goes like this…what’s wrong with these people? Can’t they do anything for themselves? If it wasn’t for us they’d still be in the trees. .. Good isn’t it? The most popular white whine.”
One element of the book bothered me as I listened to it; so many of the characters ultimately end up being related in unexpected ways that, as Maaza Mengiste put it in the New York Times, “credibility is strained.” But Jane Shilling corrected me in her Telegraph piece: That critique “might be to misunderstand [Forna’s] intention. Beneath the fluent naturalism of her writing, she has a great interest in myth and in the tribal narratives of humanity: the stories rubbed smooth at the edges with retelling. If there is something as neat as fairy story about her plot, it is not by accident. Forna understands that it is only by making patterns out of chaos that humans find the courage to continue living. And in this affecting, passionate and intelligent novel about the redemptive power of love and storytelling, she shows how it is done.”
Highly recommended. I listened to the audiobook, read excellently by Kobna Holdbrook-Smith. He was so good, I had trouble believing there weren’t two different narrators.
Here are a few bonus links:
- Aminatta Forna’s website
- Jane Shilling’s review in the Telegraph
- Maaza Mengiste’s review in the New York Times
- Tim Adams’ review in the Guardian
- Alison Flood’s write-up of Forna winning the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize for The Memory of Loss