A Tragic Story of War: Discussing Aminatta Forna’s The Memory of Love at the BBC Bookclub

AiW Guest Zahra Banday

Zahra Banday attended a recent recording of BBC Radio 4’s Bookclub discussing Aminatta Forna’s novel The Memory of Love (2011). The BBC Bookclub programme aired on 1st September 2019; you can listen again here, or catch the repeat on BBC Radio 4 on 5th September 2019. Following the BBC Bookclub recording, Zahra shared with AiW her response to the BBC Bookclub and to Forna’s novel.

“The hollowness in his chest, the tense yearning, the loneliness he braces against, every morning until he can immerse himself in work and forget. Not love. Something else, something with a power that endures. Not love, but a memory of love.” – The Memory of Love

Many people do not escape the war. It is a simple sentiment but hearing the author Aminatta Forna recount it whilst discussing her novel The Memory of Love at the BBC for a Radio 4 Bookclub recording, a wealth of meanings flooded into my mind. Unlike many wars that we were taught about in school here in the UK, the reality is that not every conflict has such clear lines drawn after a conclusion. The decade-long civil war that ravaged Sierra Leone did not have neat ends, the opposing side did not ‘go back’; many men who had killed and raped stayed put and made lives next to their victims. The war continued long after the physical conflict. This is where Forna’s novel takes place. The book starts with a very literal image of a person yearning for a time lost, a man is craving to hear a song he once heard sung on the street which he presumes to be about a lost love but soon he finds the singer again and upon closer inspection the lyrics long instead for a time since passed. As Forna writes, “He was singing of the life lost to him, because it had been his misfortune to be born much later, when the world was already a different place.” The opening paragraphs introduce the reader to the novel’s central themes of love, loss and most importantly, memory.

The recording of the BBC Bookclub programme was a highly intimate setting. A room of literary enthusiasts all neatly placed in one large room within the walls of the old BBC building, the smaller counterpart to the magnificent glass kingdom next door that houses the newer BBC offices. The BBC Bookclub is an institution in its own right, led by the baritone Scottish voice of James Naughtie and running for 21 years.  Forna was the latest resolute voice in the hundreds of authors that have appeared in more than 200 episodes and so there was a sense of history as we sat down to hear her speak. As arguably one of Forna’s most popular novels, The Memory of Love takes centre stage as the controller gives the signal to Naughtie and with the press of a button the recording begins.

Forna’s own father, Mohamed Forna, was an Amnesty Prisoner of Conscience and was killed by the Siera Leonean government on charges of treason in 1975, when the author was 11. As Forna stated at the Bookclub, her deep connection to Sierra Leone inspires this novel and allows her to create such rich and textured characters. The central narrative of The Memory of Love surrounds three men: Elias Cole, the jaded University history professor who secretly yearns for his colleague Julius’s wife; Kai Mansaray, an orthopaedic surgeon whose increasing struggles with his own trauma post-war play out heavily in the novel; and finally, Adrian Lockheart, the British doctor who specialises in treating such traumas, who arrives in Sierra Leone to help the people but also to flee his own mundane life and family back home. These characters’ narratives span thirty years, exploring how they survived the conflict and how they lived after it.

Although the story centres on these men, the women of the novel were what most caught my attention, for their complexity and strength. In particular, I was compelled by the character of Agnes, a woman who wanders around the novel in a haze of smoky memories that shackle her to the past as she struggles to reconcile with the present.

At the BBC Bookclub, before I was able to ask Forna about Agnes, another audience member did so. As a room full exclusively of women, I felt a hum around the room as Agnes’s name was brought up. We all felt invested in her story and wanted to delve further into her character. Forna informed us that Agnes was based on a true story, a woman who was separated from her eldest daughter, who witnessed the brutal murder of her husband and death of her remaining children to then be reunited with her daughter and find that the man she has married is the same man who killed her husband.

Another female character who demanded my attention was Saffia, the wife of Elias Cole’s colleague Julius, the object of Elias’s obsession, and the subject of my own question to Forna. Into the microphone that was positioned near me, I asked where the inspiration came from to create such a character as Saffia and what was Forna’s thought process in crafting her? Forna replied that she was “very typical of the women I grew up around”, the “renaissance generation”, which she describes her father as being a part of, who believed the country was theirs to shape and mould. The women were equally as educated as the men – like Saffia, who was a highly educated botanist. Saffia’s and Agnes’s haunting experiences show there is not simply one monolithic narrative for women in times of war.

I have always been enraptured by authors with the ability to write about something tragic but somehow manage to make it beautiful. Aminatta Forna does this with her novel so much so that it invites in readers who don’t necessarily know much about the conflict or history of Sierra Leone; the pure relatability of the human emotions presented are what engage the reader first. The end is a message of hope, that not only could these characters go forth, but the country can also, because there are people committed to making that happen. As Forna said at the Bookclub, “books and novels are about people” and, she argued, it is a quality of the Sierra Leonean people to “survive and retain humour”.

Zahra Banday is a recent graduate of English Literature at SOAS, University of London. She has written several articles for the newspaper The SOAS Spirit and has recently just completed the prestigious Edinburgh TV Festival scheme The Network. Literature, television and film are some of her great loves. 


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