The Memory of Love by Aminatta Forna

When I was gifted my kindle by my kind, book-loving Aunt,  Aminatta Forna’s The Memory of Love was one of the preloaded titles I looked forward to reading.

Aminatta Forna was born in Scotland and raised in Sierra Leone, the country where most of this story takes place. She is the daughter of a former Sierra Leonean cabinet minister and dissident, murdered by the state in 1975. She has written the story of three men, whose lives intersect briefly, and who come into contact with each other at the Freetown Central Hospital.

Dr Adrian Lockhart, recently arrived from London has responded to a request to an overseas posting for a government-sponsored psychologist specialising in PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder), his thoughts and actions suggesting he may be in the midst of a midlife crisis, needing some distance from his life to see it for what it really is. Life in Sierra Leone may allow but doesn’t appreciate such self-centred indulgences and Dr Kai Mansaray, a young local surgeon gives him an honest portrayal of just how people like him are perceived, lacking sufficient equanimity to see it for himself. Despite the frankness, the two become friends and seek out each other’s company with increasing frequency.

Both men experience love and its aftermath, its vulnerability, its brief joy, its destruction and the memory of it, as if it were real, even when it no longer exists.

 For death takes everything, leaves behind no possibilities, save one – which is to remember. He cannot believe with what intensity one can continue to love a person who is dead. Only fools, he believes, think that love is for the living alone.

In addition to his post at the hospital, Adrian helps out at the mental hospital and recognises Agnes, one of his former patients (one visit patients – they visit once and never return).

The people his colleagues sent to him were outpatients mostly, the ones with whom the doctors could find nothing wrong. And afterwards each of his new patients made the same request for medicines, to which Adrian explained he was not that sort of doctor. A nod of acceptance, rather than understanding. None of them ever returned.

Agnes is discharged before Adrian sees her and he becomes intent on trying to resolve the cause of her illness, a fugue, or temporary amnesia, and in doing so he will come too close to the sick, ugliness of the country’s past conflict where sometimes amnesia may be the only respite one has from a brutal reality.

We also meet Professor Elias Cole, an old history professor who taught at Freetown university before and after the 1969 coup, his position afterwards, somewhat elevated than it was previously. He has an obsessive fixation on Saffia, the wife of another Professor, whom he befriends and becomes caught up with unknowingly, leading to an interrogation and a spell in prison, which will change both their lives. He encounters Adrian in the hospital, near the end of his life, seeking an audience to share his story before it is too late. Adrian listens and realises there is more to Professor Cole’s story than he is letting on.

This is a multi-layered story that reveals itself with each encounter, that hints at the traumatic events and psychological destruction of a nation, depicting the constant struggle for survival in a post-war era and the love it’s citizens have for their country despite the difficulties and horrors of the past. There is sacrifice in staying and pain in leaving; there is no real escape, both will suffer, albeit in different ways.

The author, Aminatta Forna

I really enjoyed this book, it was a pleasure to read and consider its characters and what they represented, I loved it for the questions it posed in the mind of the reader, leaving us to come to our own conclusions, for every question could have had an equally valid, if opposite answer, such is life and the characters who inhabit our own reality, there are those who will stand up even it means they will be sacrificed and those who will remain quiet and flourish.

It is as if there are no answers, there are just the decisions we make, that both we and the generations that follow then need to live with and understand.

I recommend listening to this powerful discussion between the BBC’s Bola Masuor and Aminatta Forna on the BBC World Service talking about both The Memory of Love and The Devil that Danced on the Water, the book she wrote about her search for the truth of her father’s fate after he was seized by secret police and later killed.

When you do nothing, what do your children inherit?

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The plain fact of the matter is that any group will remain potentially conscienceless and evil until such a time as each and every individual holds himself or herself directly responsible for the behaviour of the whole group – the organism of which he or she is part. We have not yet begun to arrive at that point. – from the work of M. Scott Peck, People of the Lie

Buy The Memory of Love via Book Depository

 

Dinah, her Mothers and a woman named Ruth

Aix Yoga Center Teachers

‘The Red Tent’ was published nearly 15 years ago but only came to my attention a couple of weeks ago through one of those wonderful connections that sometimes occur out of the blue when you are least expecting it.

The hilltop village of Villeneuve

Recently I met Jaci, an Aix Yoga Centre teacher, who organised a day at her home in Villeneuve, two hours of yoga in the morning, a shared lunch and aromatherapy massage in the afternoon. The first lady who came to see me for a treatment wasn’t doing yoga, she arrived with her well-used hiking poles, out of the hills of Forcalquier, having decided that a 90 minute walk before a 90 minute massage would be a good idea.

Yoga in a Mongolian yurt in Villeneuve

And so I met Ruth, a wonderful free-spirited woman with long flowing blonde dreadlocks, originally from Tuscon, Arizona, living in a farmhouse up in the fertile hills of Provence, where she lives with her French husband and two daughters.

As I worked away, I casually mentioned my very dear friend and book buddy CKC, who also comes from Tuscon and had she by any chance read Nancy E. Turner’s excellent trilogy ‘These is My Words’, a story about the author’s grandmother Sarah Prine, pioneer woman from the same area?

Well, from there we traded book titles and discovered we loved the same books and both went away with a “you MUST read” recommendation, mine to her being Sandra Gulland’s trilogy on the life and sorrows of Josephine Bonaparte and hers to me, Anita Diamant’s ‘The Red Tent’, “My daughters and I loved that book” she said.

The Red Tent

Dinah is the only daughter of Jacob, who fathered 12 sons by four wives who were sisters. It is from her perspective that we are told her mother Leah’s stories, her own story in the land of her birth and her exile in Egypt.

 “If you want to understand any woman, you must first ask about her mother and then listen carefully. Stories about food show a strong connection. Wistful silences demonstrate unfinished business.”

Aromatherapy Massage in ‘The White Tent’

And in ‘The Red Tent’, that place set aside for women to inhabit during their monthly cycle, secrets of womanhood were shared and passed down the generations, the clan of Jacob.

The book is epic, taking us through the joys and sorrows of births, miscarriages, barrenness, jealousies, betrayals, the vivid and revelatory dreams of sisters seeking insight and forgiveness.

We meet Rachel, whose presence was as powerful as the moon; it was her beauty that lured Jacob into the family fold, her body emitting the scent of fresh water, filling the dusty hills where they live with the promise of life and wealth.

Leah, Dinah’s mother and herself mother to seven sons, her twin coloured eyes, generous height and fertile womb giving her unique status.

Zilpah, daughter of an Egyptian slave, a few months younger than Leah, milk-sisters and playmates since childhood, who said she remembered everything that happened to her, including her own birth.

Bilhah, last born of the sisters, another daughter of a slave who ran off when she was young – tiny, dark, the silent one.

It is the women we come to know and understand and whose stories we follow, as they navigate life, love, marriage, heartbreak, living in a caravan of tents with a father they no longer respect, now creating their own large family, trying to better themselves until one tragic episode arrives to undo it all.

And for that, if you haven’t done so already, you will just have to find a copy of this ambitious, riveting tale of the lives of these women living in ancient times.

“If you sit on the bank of a river, you see only a small part of its surface. And yet, the water before your eyes is proof of unknowable depths. My heart brims with thanks for the kindness you have shown me by sitting on the banks of this river, by visiting the echoes of my name.”

Thomas Jefferson – Lessons from a Secret Buddha

This is a delightful and simple novella that views the life and achievements of one of America’s great role models through the principles of Buddhist thought, a man who wished only to be remembered for three achievements, author of the Declaration of American Independence, of the statute of Virginia for Religious Freedom and Father of the University of Virginia. He was President from March 1801 – March 1809.

Suneel Dhand has created a Buddhist guru whom he connects to Jefferson’s mother, and who then begins to correspond with the young man when he is a discontented, overweight child. The letters introduce him to seven ancient principles of Buddhism and the Eastern way of life and we then witness Jefferson’s own lifestyle change as he becomes vegetarian, more interested in books and develops a greater awareness of how thoughts, actions and behaviours position a man.

When we take an in-depth look at all of his lifestyle practices we see that Tom practiced very Eastern ways of living, different from his fellow countrymen. In many ways he was a well-being guru, centuries ahead of his time.

Most of my knowledge of the role Thomas Jefferson played in American society comes from having seen the excellent HBO TV series ‘John Adams’ and the awe with which he was regarded by both John Adams and Benjamin Franklin as they encouraged him to pen the Declaration of American Independence.

Portraits of John Adams and Thomas Jefferson by American painter Mather Brown 1788

The series is based on David McCullough’s Pulitzer prize-winning biography ‘John Adams’, a volume I have on the shelf and will one day set to and read as well.

As Abigail Adams would confide to Jefferson, there had seldom been anyone in her husband’s life with whom he could associate with “such perfect freedom and unreserve” and this meant the world to her.  If you haven’t seen the series, here are some of Jefferson’s greatest moments played by the British actor Stephen Dillane.

A surprising little book, one that is full of good sense and relevant to today while reminding us of the extraordinary man Thomas Jefferson was and the major contributions he made not just to American history but also to humanity.

Today millions continue to be inspired by Thomas Jefferson, the genius who galvanized his people to freedom. A truly enlightened soul indeed – and that, without ever requiring any lessons from a Secret Buddha.

Note: This is an Advance Reader Copy (ARC) provided by the publisher via NetGalley.

The Coward’s Tale

Laddy Merridew comes to spend time with his Gran in an old Welsh mining town in Vanessa Gebbie’s ‘A Coward’s Tale’. Not happy with his lot, lost in the in-between, here where he doesn’t feel like he belongs so starts skipping school and there, the home he has come from that is breaking apart and will never be as it was and what’s worse, is requiring him to make decisions he feels incapable of making.

Laddy comes to the town statue outside the public library to listen to the local beggar Ianto Jenkins tell and trade stories for a coffee or a bite to eat and this part of his day passes pleasantly for hearing and learning about the descendants and ancestors of the town, all of whom have in some way been touched by the tragedy at the Kindly Light coalmine one September morning back then.

 ‘We’re meant to be doing coal mines in history.’

‘History, now, is it?’

‘They make it boring though. Not like your stories. You make it like it is still happening, in your head anyway.’

And the beggar shakes that head. ‘It is. And sometimes Maggot, I wish it wasn’t.’

Ianto Passchendaele Jenkins narrates the stories that link present day inhabitants back to their ancestors, two generations previous, showing that one is rarely ever completely free of the past and the sins of the fathers are often witnessed albeit in a new form, in the actions of those living today. From Baker Bowen to the Woodwork Teacher, Halfwit and the Deputy Bank Manager, the Deputy Librarian and the Undertaker and the Piano Tuner, Ianto shares their tales with warmth and compassion until finally one of his characters, the Collier, Peter Edwards share’s the beggar’s story, ‘The Coward’s Tale’.

Like young Laddy who no longer knows whether what his parents say is true or not, so too with the beggar’s tales, which captivate cinemagoers waiting in the queue, keeping him talking by topping up his coffee supply, the author making use of the words may and will to imagine what people may do and if so what that means they will do. Only Laddy searches for clarification, the others are happy to be mesmerised and encourage him with edible gifts.

‘For my breakfast? I will tell a story for breakfast? An egg. How about a nice egg?’

Once I got into the tales and understood the framework, I enjoyed the book, but I admit it took three attempts before the stories managed to carry me away with their rhythmic, poetic prose. However they are splendid tales and told with a unique captivating voice that puts the reader right in that square with all the other listeners, empathizing with each of the characters that the adored Ianto Jenkins brings to life for them.

Finally I am reminded of another set of tales of life in a small French village in Julia Stuart’s The Matchmaker of Perigord, which was a favourite a few years back, which I also recommend as a compelling, humorous summer read.

Note:This book was an Advanced Reader Copy (ARC), provided by the publisher via NetGalley.

Frieda’s Unlikely Inheritance

Suzanne Joinson’s A Lady Cyclist’s Guide to Kashgar, is a novel that intertwines the lives and stories of Frieda, in modern-day London and Eva, part of a missionary group with her sister Lizzie and their companion Millicent in 1920’s Kashgar, in the western part of China.

“Why do you want to bring it?” Lizzie asked, but I don’t think I answered her. I did not tell her that it was my shield and my method of escape; or that since the first time I pedaled and felt the freedom of cycling, I’ve known that it is the closest I can get to flying.

Eva has taken her bicycle and is penning a guide to cycling which seems to interest her more than missionary activities, excerpts of which grace the beginning of each Kashgar chapter and whose meanings could be interpreted to have wider meaning than just cycling.

What the Bicycle Does: Mounted on a wheel, you feel at once the keenest sense of responsibility. You are there to do as you will within reasonable limits; you are continually called upon to judge and to determine points that before have not needed your consideration, and consequently you become alert, active, quick-sighted and keenly alive, as well to the rights of others as to what is due yourself.

Eva and her companions have travelled to the ancient Silk route city of Kashgar in the hope of converting lost souls, but seem to find only trouble, not helped by the questionable motivations of each of the individuals that make up the group. Tolerated but unwelcome, they find themselves ostracized and seen as bringing bad luck during a time of political and religious unrest.

In London Frieda lives a solitary existence, her work demanding her to travel constantly which keeps her from becoming too involved in any social sense when she is at home – that and her choice of relationship which assists in putting a halt on her progression. But two things occur that may offer not just distraction, but a divergence in her life, with which she has a growing frustration and sense of wanting to change. The arrival of a young Yemeni artist on her doorstep with skills in drawing birds like the long-tailed variety he draws on her wall and the arrival of a letter informing her of her responsibilities regarding the death of a person who has named her next of kin.

The letter prompts her to consider making contact with her mother whom she has not seen since she was seven years old and Tayeb, the young artist is able to help her decipher the Arabic script in a notebook she finds that now belongs to her. He also knows how to take care of an owl that seems to have fallen into her care.

The book wasn’t quite what I was expecting, perhaps due to the title and the mention of the Silk Road, these things are mere markers which entice our interest while the story takes us on another journey altogether, the bicycle more of a metaphor for a journey and the things one is likely to encounter and is required to consider. I enjoyed the story and in particular the contemporary story which provides the framework.

Here the birds’ journey ends, our journey, the journey of words, and after us there will be a horizon for new birds. – extract from Mahmoud Darwish’s poem ‘Here the Birds’ Journey Ends’.

 

Note: This book was an Advanced Reader Copy (ARC), provided by the publisher via NetGalley.

Lucretia and the Kroons

Unsure quite I was pre-approved to read Lucretia and the Kroons’, published in July 2012, I was however curious to read Victor Lavalle’s novella, described by Gary Shteyngart as a master of literary horror.

After reading an audio transcript of an interview between Lavalle and Amy Minton on Narrative Voice, I decided to download his book and find out what it was all about, it being good to read outside what one would ordinarily choose.

It’s an adolescent literary horror of the tame kind and might even be considered magic realism depending on how you interpret it.  The world Lucretia enters can be seen as a metaphor for that which we either witness as an observer or experience as one who is mortally ill – that place somewhere between the living and the dead. Lavalle’s flourishing imagination takes two girls to a place that may or may not exist on an adventure of a zombie-ish kind.

Lucretia celebrated her 12th birthday without her best friend Sunny because she was too ill to attend. Lucretia is determined to spend time with her friend to make up for it and so arranges with much difficulty for Sunny to spend an afternoon with her, convincing her mother to leave them unsupervised for two hours.

Just before Sunny’s imminent arrival, Lucretia’s brother Louis tells her a story about the Kroons, the people who used to live two floors up and relishes warning her, as only older brothers can do, of the horrors that can happen to children. Lucretia is afraid for herself and especially for Sunny, who lives one floor up, so decides to take matters into her own hands with the intention of rescuing her friend.

The experience of reading Victor Lavalle is a little like Murakami for teenagers, unique multi-layered interpretations of reality or non-reality which require the reader to let go and read with an open mind. I found myself looking for and finding many parallel meanings, not necessarily those the author intended, but that is the magic of the book, that her entrance into this other worldly place can be interpreted in different ways. It did leave questions which a successfully written magic realism story inevitably does about what really did happen and the answer I find is always best when left to the reader’s interpretation rather than dictated by the author.

The author does offer an alternative interpretation in the final pages of the book, which really I almost prefer to ignore, because it was not required and added nothing to the story and might only serve to confuse younger readers and make it less likely to be something they could relate to.

The Tragedy of Lucretia Sandro Botticelli ca.1500-1501 via Wikipedia

I think this book and others like Neil Gaiman’s Coraline are interesting for young people who are drawn towards the much more imaginative, often dark, transformational kind of oeuvres. It is not what I read as a child, but it is what my daughter likes to read and create (graphic novels included) characters that are different from the norm, semi-gothic at times, avant-garde (not even sure of an apt word to describe it) and wonderful in a kind of ghoulish way, though the troubles they must overcome are no different to many others, who might read about them in a more conventional way. I think Lavalle is onto a good thing.

Note: This book was an Advanced Reader Copy (ARC), provided by the publisher via NetGalley.

Red Dust Road by Jackie Kay

I discovered Red Dust Road after reading a feature about Jackie Kay in the Guardian’s A Life in Writing series coinciding with the release of her short story collection Reality Reality. Upon reading the interview I learned that she had also recently published a memoir focusing on the story of her adoption by a Scottish couple and her subsequent attempt to find her Scottish birth mother and Nigerian birth father. I ordered both books, keen to discover this writer’s work, particularly as she is also a renowned poet and I am drawn to writers who already have poetry resonating within their voice, and I couldn’t wait to jump into the memoir, more for personal reasons, since I have been on a similar journey myself.

While her brother Maxie said he couldn’t remember not knowing he was adopted, for Jackie, the realisation was one she remembered clearly after watching a cowboy and Indian film and feeling sad because the Indians had lost again and she wanted them to win. After observing that the Indians had her colouring which was not the same as her mother, she asked why. The revelation that followed came as a shock, she cried and worried that ‘not real’ meant her mother was somehow going to disappear or dissolve. But she had been gifted with a loving and sensitive mother, an honest, straightforward and intelligent woman, who clearly loved both her children unconditionally as Jackie Kay displays in her warm, appreciative depiction of the characters involved in this remarkable and exhilarating story.

My Friend’s Wedding in Lagos

‘Betrothed’, she told me ‘your father met your mother in the Highlands of Scotland and they fell in love. He was from Nigeria – look, here it is in the atlas – and she was from the Highlands – look, here’s where she was from, Nairn. They were madly in love and they made you, but he was betrothed and had to return to Nigeria to marry a woman he maybe had never met. They do that there, you know. Hard, Jackie, must have been hard’.

In no rush to piece together the puzzle, but knowing that she will, Jackie finds occasion with her work to be in certain places where she can do a little investigative work, she visits Nairn, where he birth mother grew up and Milton Keynes where she lives now; Aberdeen where her father was at university and Nigeria, that supposed foreign land of her ancestors that she had no connection to in her daily life, but has dreamed of and imagined and experiences a kind of coming home when she visits the ancestral village of her father.

Recounting her visit to the village and in particular meeting one of the family members, left pools of liquids in my newly prescribed reading glasses, tears of joy and recognition as acknowledgement is realised. I don’t want to say too much, because there is too much good in reading this for the first time and not knowing what will occur, but this is a wonderful story, narrated without sentimentality, putting the reader right in her shoes, almost experiencing it first-hand.

Hanging Out in Lagos, Nigeria

Like so many adoption stories and as depicted so well in Mike Leigh’s ‘Secrets and Lies’, there remains much mystery and secrecy around so many of the stories. For those who have buried that episode in their lives somewhere deep, there is a reluctance to risk the turbulence they perceive it may cause, and even when acknowledged by the parent adoptees are often kept from the rest of the family. This can be one of the greatest risks of pursuing genetic ties, the risk of rejection as an adult with full consciousness, unlike that of a baby; although much research suggests that a baby does indeed have awareness of the separation.

Many doctors and psychologists now understand that bonding doesn’t begin at birth, but is a continuum of physiological, psychological, and spiritual events which begin in utero and continue throughout the postnatal bonding period. When this natural evolution is interrupted by a postnatal separation from the biological mother, the resultant experience of abandonment and loss is indelibly imprinted upon the unconscious minds of these children, causing that which I call the “primal wound”. Nancy Verrier, The Primal Wound, Understanding the Adopted Child

The balcony from where the children sang to me

I laughed when she talked about the experience of being called Oyibo (white person) in the village, causing quite a sensation with her paler skin. She mentions returning to Lagos which she describes as more cosmopolitan and where one is unlikely to hear that word.

I have to say that I too know that word, from my visit to Lagos in 1999, when I visited for marriage of a very dear friend. In the quarter where I was staying, I was a bit of an anomaly and not only did the children come to stand outside the house in case they caught a glimpse of the Oyibo, they even had a song they sung, which my friend laughed at, remembering she too used to sing it as a child, something about ‘white man, eat more pepper (the very hot pepper soup for breakfast), make your face go redder’, I guess it’s true, we do have an unusual capacity to change the colour of our face when eating something very hot or becoming embarrassed!

There are so many extracts I could paste and talk about from Red Dust Road, the reaction of her own son, the discovery of names, the reading through old archives, visiting buildings from another past, the importance of the imagination and the importance of a true friend, but I would prefer that you read the book and enjoy your own journey and reactions to this wonderfully humane and important story that we are privileged to share.

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Below, I share a few photos from my visit to Lagos, Nigeria in 1999, an unforgettable experience it was indeed.

Preparing for the Native Ceremony, bride wearing her family ensemble

View from a rear window

Bride with her brother, wearing an outfit from the husband’s family

The theatrical Native ceremony in full swing