20 Books of Summer, #15 and #16: The Memory of Love and Beloved

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Before rereading: I first read The Memory of Love in 2011, when it was on the Orange Prize shortlist. I remember liking the novel far more than I anticipated, but being hugely disappointed by the ending. I remember very little about it otherwise, although I was impressed by Aminatta Forna’s subsequent novels, The Hired Man and Happiness. Spoilers for The Memory of Love follow.

The first time I read The Memory of Love, I wrote: ‘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.’ 

However, I was hugely disappointed by the final fifty pages of the novel, writing: ‘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… 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… 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… [The female characters] become idealised pawns largely because we are meant to come down on Adrian’s “side”‘.

After rereading: Interestingly, while I disagree with some of the criticisms I made of The Memory of Love the first time around, I came away with a significantly worse impression of the novel in 2022 than in 2011. It now strikes me as a curiously old-fashioned book, especially in comparison to Forna’s later work. Forna seems determined not to reveal much of Adrian’s inner life, keeping us at arm’s length from the character and instead describing the world he moves through in great, if not excruciating, detail. This might have been a clever narrative choice, especially given Adrian’s psychiatric work that requires him to dig deeply into the traumatised minds of other characters while saying nothing about himself, but it ultimately causes a big problem for the novel.

Adrian’s ‘colourlessness’ seems to render him an objective observer of the aftermath of the civil war in Sierra Leone and the moral conflicts it has caused for its survivors, which makes him feel uncomfortably like a kind of white saviour who isn’t even that good at saving. I’m less convinced than I was in 2011 that this was Forna’s intention; I think we are meant to question Adrian’s presence and motives. Nevertheless, his judgment of Elias still feels off-kilter, even if we can assume that some of his anger is displaced frustration about his inability to help his lover, Mamakay, who is Elias’s daughter. I disliked Elias even more this time round (originally, I felt he was ‘seriously flawed’ but still sympathetic), and so was a bit less bothered about his fate, but it was hard not to feel that both he and Adrian are cast in the same mould: paternalistic men who believe they know what’s best for those around them, especially the women they claim to love but never really get to know. However, if this was the reaction that Forna was aiming for, I wish the women in the narrative had been more than idealised ciphers.

If there’s anything that saves this novel, it’s Kai’s story. While Forna also gives us limited access to Kai’s thoughts, we get more to work with, and he is also the character that has the most nuanced and interesting arc, as he struggles with his own unresolved PTSD and the temptation of emigrating to the United States to join his friend Tejani, rather than continuing with his important orthopaedic practice in Sierra Leone. Interestingly, when Mamakay turns up in Kai’s narrative, we get a sense of who she might be as a person rather than the ‘unreadable’ woman she appears to be through Adrian’s eyes. Again, I wonder if Forna had something to say here about the white and/or misogynistic gaze, as this replays Elias’s relationship with Mamakay’s mother Saffia. If so, though, the novel reproduces these power structures rather than truly challenging them. The woman on its cover remains a distant memory rather than a real, living love.

My rating in 2011: ***1/2

My rating in 2022: ***

L: The fantastic, Woman In White-esque edition belonging to my mum that I read first time around. R: the slightly bizarre Everyman’s classics edition I borrowed from the library this time around.

Before rereading: I first read Beloved during the summer of 2004, when I was seventeen. I clearly remember reading it in the tent that served as the ‘green room’ for the outdoor youth theatre production of My Fair Lady I was involved with that summer. I’d been inspired to read it because we’d read the opening paragraphs in English Literature class (we’d started preparing for our A Level unseen text syllabus just before school broke up, as our AS Levels were over) and I’d been hugely impressed by Morrison’s writing. However, I remember struggling with the denseness of the text while reading the whole novel. I thought it was good, but I knew I didn’t quite understand it. I didn’t write anything about the novel at the time.

After rereading: Like The Memory of Love, Beloved deals with the legacy of trauma, working through dreams and fragmentary flashbacks as the characters continue to struggle with the violence they’ve witnessed. Slavery occupies the same kind of space in Beloved as the civil war does in The Memory of Love; we gradually become aware of what has happened to our protagonists, but we are never given a neat chronological account. Instead, we re-experience the trauma as they do, when it intrudes upon the present. It won’t come as any surprise that Beloved is the far better novel, but they made interesting reading companions.

I was surprised, when revisiting Beloved, to find that it was much less dense and difficult than I remembered. I think I’ve just had so much more experience at reading this kind of writing since I was a teen (when I chomped down big nineteenth-century English classics, so had no fear of ‘challenging’ books per se). And yes, it’s a hugely impressive achievement. Morrison’s prose is stunning, especially when she writes about what we remember, what we cannot, and how we re-encounter it:

Screenshot 2022-08-17 at 15.20.53

I don’t really think the world needs me to review Beloved in great depth, because I don’t have anything profound to say. This is a great novel, and if I do still admire it rather than adore it, that doesn’t bear any relation to how well it achieves what it set out to do.

My rating in 2004: ****

My rating in 2022: ****1/2

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15 thoughts on “20 Books of Summer, #15 and #16: The Memory of Love and Beloved

  1. The thing I struggled with in Beloved is Morrison makes things happen without much to lead us into understanding. For instance, when the man begins having sex with Beloved, I was wondering where that was going. Sometimes the writing is abstract so you have to sit there and think about what’s even happening, but I found the abstract moments lost some of their power by making me stop and puzzle it out. For example, when one of the slaves is forced to perform oral sex on a foreman. It’s written so oddly that I had to go round and round to even picture what was going on. By that point, it wasn’t as impactful on me, which is likely the opposite desired effect.

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    • This is exactly what caught me out the first time I read Beloved (and still caught me out when I read other Morrisons more recently, e.g. Paradise). I was surprised that I didn’t find it a problem this time. I do think she’s a writer that really repays rereading, though obviously not everyone will love her style. For me, the gradual realisation of the horror works well.

      Re. Paul D and Beloved, I didn’t have too much trouble accepting this as it seemed to be working on the level of unconscious, malign magic – so his motives weren’t important. It’s interesting that this works for me in Morrison though when I have struggled with other magic realist texts that do similar things.

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      • Huh, I guess I hadn’t thought of it as being magical realism, but I can see how it would be if I consider how odd it is plus the ghostly aspect, and add in the generations of trauma. I guess my brain wants to know what it means.

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        • Yeah, I’m not sure if magic realism is the right term, but Beloved obviously exercises unearthly power… It’s why I like the older cover so much, it really captures the uncanniness of the book IMO.

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  2. I’ve never read anything of Forna’s and don’t think I’d choose this one — when I saw it around at the library I guess I hoped/expected it would be more like Half of a Yellow Sun.

    My book club has a subgroup that reads women’s classics every other month. Earlier this year we wanted to do something by Toni Morrison and I generally prefer to read things that are new to me rather than reread, so I convinced everyone to settle on Paradise … which ended up being basically impenetrable. So we should have reread Beloved instead!

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    • Ooh, Paradise is difficult! I read it a few years ago and found it very dense – I would like to re-read at some point.

      Half of A Yellow Sun is another one I should re-read. I learnt a lot from it but didn’t really rate it as a novel, but it’s a long time since I read it. It would be interesting to compare it to The Memory of Love. If you want to try a Forna, her latest, Happiness, is excellent.

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  3. Interesting review of Memory of Love, that I also read as one of my 20 books of summer this year. I found myself disliking Adrian enormously, and suspected his idealistic and paternalistic motives, and Elias’s pursuit of Saffia seemed just straight-up creepy, rather than impassioned. But all the men in this novel are unreliable narrators I feel, while for the women, yes, they passively have things happen to them, maybe deliberately, to show the impact of men’s egos on women’s lives? … I did really like the character of Julius though!

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    • Yep, totally agree, did not like any of the men in this novel, except Kai. I think this is probably what Forna was going for but it made the novel a quite unsatisfactory experience for me – especially as I missed the lack of inner monologue, except in Elias’s sections.

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  4. I want to read some Forna so it’s good to know this one is so troublesome. I haven’t read Beloved, either, somehow. I’m put off a bit by the mystical/ghostly aspects even though people find them powerful. I do like to know what’s going on, but her writing is amazing …

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    • Yeah, I’d definitely recommend her more recent novels instead – Happiness is excellent. I usually struggle with the kind of magical realism employed by Beloved, but Morrison is so brilliant she makes it work for me. To be fair, that might be because I was never unsure what was going on – it seemed clear to me how the haunting worked and why, even if the explanation was supernatural.

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  5. An interesting juxtaposition of two very interesting writers, Laura. The only thing of Forna’s that I’ve read is “The Devil Danced On The Waters,” a memoir about her childhood in Sierra Leone and her father’s execution on a trumped up treason charge. I’m not a big fan of memoirs, don’t usually read them and don’t know why I choose this one (probably listened to an interview). I’m so glad I did, however; it was fabulous. I’ve always intended to read some of Forna’s fiction but, well, you know how that goes.
    As for Tony Morrison — well, I can’t think of any more superlatives to use regarding her work. I can’t remember when I first read Beloved; it was at a much later stage in life that when you first encountered it, but I was hooked from the first sentence. I’ve always intended to re-read it but it’s so very painful at times I haven’t been able to. Morrison has a special place for me; she’s one of those writers who made me begin to at least open my eyes to some of the horrors of American history (that being said, I’ve only read a couple of her novels). At the top of the TBR’s current configuration (the pile is constantly changing), I have a copy of Morrison’s short story “Recitatif,” with an introduction by Zadie Smith. I also have a free afternoon . . . hmmm !

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  6. Pingback: 20 Books of Summer, 2022: A Retrospective | Laura Tisdall

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