Elevate Difference

The Memory of Love

The Memory of Love is a slow and beautiful book. I'm not the biggest fan of art that proceeds at such a deliberate pace, but this is definitely at the top of the heap for such books; the descriptions are lovely and precise, every detail picked out with absolute care. I loved the representations of African life, which felt honest and authentic. Having recently spent a year in Africa, I had lots of moments of recognition—for example, the racism of many international aid workers is often well-depicted (although it’s carefully not attributed to the “good” expatriate characters, which struck me as simplistic). The author—who is biracial and was raised in the United Kingdom and Sierra Leone—also includes some good post-colonial critique, but it rarely feels like the critique overpowers the narrative.

The book is set mainly in 2001 in Sierra Leone, with three main characters (all male): a dying university professor, a brilliant young surgeon, and a British expatriate psychiatrist. They're complex characters with intriguing perspectives—particularly the professor, who survived very un-heroically through turbulent times, and is not painted in a sympathetic manner at all. The whole story forms a vivid, touching portrait of war—its devastating, multifaceted effects on human beings; its numb aftermath.

It seems like an odd choice for a female author to tell a story primarily through male characters, however, and it's a little bit difficult to know how to review such a book as a feminist. Interestingly, The Memory of Love fails the Bechdel test (to pass, it would require "at least two women in it, who talk to each other, about something other than a man"). There are at least two women in the book, but I can't think of a scene offhand in which they talk to each other. Of course, the main characters are male, so how could there be such a scene?

Perhaps it's more relevant to discuss how the female characters are portrayed. There are definitely women in this book to equal the men; I particularly liked the psychiatrist's close female friend Ileana, a brusque psychologist and likewise European, whose narrative function is usually to call him out for his assumptions or stereotypes. He also has a female patient with a sad and stirring story. The book's two most important female characters are quite mysterious, though.

Those two female characters are the major love interests—and the two scenes in which we see men fall in love with them depict love at first sight. The women's personalities usually seem incidental to the passion of their lovers. In fact, I would go so far as to call both women ciphers. I never felt like I had much idea of what they were thinking. The male psychiatrist also has a wife and daughter back home, who (in the rather rare instances that they appear) are similarly opaque.

In general, I liked The Memory of Love, especially as a delicate description of a war-ravaged country. But—oddly for a book whose title implies that it's mostly about love—though I enjoyed the portrayals of the men’s emotional experiences throughout their difficult romances, I closed the book feeling somewhat dissatisfied, because I felt so little connection to the female characters.

Written by: Clarisse Thorn, December 19th 2010