Ignore the title, with its subliminal echoes of Mills & Boon. Aminatta Forna’s magnificent second novel is not really about love. Its themes are far grittier, and all the more compelling for it: war, loss, and how a society emerging from civil strife must reinvent its own history, fabricating a tolerable narrative in order to remain semi sane.
The country in question is Sierra Leone. Its charming capital, Freetown, dotted anomalously with chimney-potted villas recalling an era when this was a British colony, is framed by green hills which tumble into a beach-fringed sea. It doesn’t attract many tourists, though. For Sierra Leone has in recent decades proved a rich source of the nightmarish images that make more stable societies blench: drugged-up rebel forces, conscience-free child fighters, the casual amputations of civilian hands and feet.
Adrian Lockheart, a British psychologist suffering from professional and personal aimlessness, relocates to Freetown. There, he befriends Kai Mansaray, a driven local surgeon, and becomes de facto father confessor to Elias Cole, a history professor whose lungs are gradually giving way.
Adrian takes a while to warm up to the country, much like the narrative itself — this was the one segment of the book where I felt some pruning might have been in order. But as this diffident Brit is sucked in, falling in love with the inscrutable Mamakay, picking clumsily at the mental scabs of his patients, struggling to discern the outlines of past events, Forna’s narrative takes hold.
Why does one of his female patients periodically lose her mind and go on long, seemingly aimless walks across the countryside? What explains Kai’s phobia about the main bridge out of town? Why does another patient become hysterical at the smell of roasting meat? Why does Mamakay so despise her father, Adrian’s dying professor friend?
All the key actors, it emerges, are wrestling with past horrors. Elias is the man who allowed a great evil to take place by dint of doing nothing — he has been a supine collaborator with the authoritarian regime which eventually paved the way for the rebel uprising. Kai is haunted by a terrible day when those rebel forces played with him and a pretty nurse as sadistically as a cat with a dying mouse.
Slowly, the psychologist realises that for many of his patients, his talking cures are worse than useless. Of what use is the frank discussion, the ritual unburdening that has become the touchstone of our modern, blabby society to a parent whose pretty daughter has unwittingly married the enemy?
Worse than that, supposed confessionals can be used, as in Elias’ case, to manipulate the facts, turning a past in which he cravenly lusted after and eventually won a more charismatic university colleague’s widow, into something much more palatable.
‘It’s happening all over the country,’ Mamakay explains.
People are blotting out what happened, fiddling with the truth, creating their own version of events to fill in the blanks. A version of the truth which puts them in a good light, that wipes out whatever they did or failed to do and makes certain none of them will be blamed.
Forna, who was 11 when her father, a former finance minister, was hanged by the administration of Siaka Stevens, has experienced both loss and betrayal, and that knowledge has given her a unique insight into the nature of compromise. She has the rare gift of being simultaneously both clear-eyed and compassionate towards her characters. There are moments where the plot twists felt a little too neat and one momentarily catches a glimpse of the author’s hand twitching the strings. But this feels like a trivial quibble given the sheer emotional power of the resulting tale.
She also has a real gift for natural description, and one of the delights of this book is the tangible sense it offers of one of Africa’s most beautiful countries, where the wild orchids, rolling surf and bobbing sandpipers serve as constant mockery of human confusion.
If West Africa has lived through some of the most grotesque episodes of the 20th century, it has also been blessed with several generations of extraordinary writing talents who continue to turn those ordeals into heart-rending literature. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie is rightly celebrated for playing that role in Nigeria. With this book, Aminatta Forna shows she deserves to be included in that same category.