Nenebah or Sierra Leone?

“And when he wakes from dreaming of her, is it not the same for him? 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 the memory of love” (Chapter 21, last paragraph).

I love the language Aminatta Forna uses in this passage, to capture the essence of her novel’s title. To begin with, the speaker of this passage is Kai, an unlikely suspect for a deep introspection about love. All we know of Kai at this point is that he is a passionate workaholic, who has endured a traumatic war. It would have made more sense for Adrian, with the failing marriage, or Elias Cole, with his in-depth memoir, to make these comments, but Forna chooses Kai.

This distinction makes me wonder–was he really talking about Nenebah? While his love for Nenebah is obvious from the memories that are revealed to us overtime, I believe this “memory of love” could just as well have been directed towards his country, Sierra Leone.

In the chapter leading up to this dramatic paragraph, Kai goes back and forth between describing his time with Nenebah, and the political play-by-play of Sierra Leone: “The  army was divided, he told Nenebah.  If the army was divided it was dangerous for everyone” (Chapter 21). Not only so, but Kai spends any minute he’s not sleeping or with Nenebah at the hospital, the only time when “Kai was happy.” Kai is literally trying to put his country back together, one surgery at a time.

This is why I think Adrian and Kai’s friendship is so symbolic. As foreign aid workers flood into the country to help rebuild, Kai is constantly flashing back to the memories he has of his country before the war. His memories of the University, of his family gatherings, the trips to the countryside, all illustrate, to the readers, what life was like before the war. But Kai knows his country will never be able to go back to the way they once were, not with all of the wounds that he is helping to literally patch up. His temptation to move to America underlines this transition, that while he still may love the people close to him, his love for his country has, with the war, ended, leaving just the memory of love.

About Deb Carey

Princeton in Africa Fellow living in Musanze, Rwanda. | Living to see a world with more economic freedom, community-driven change, and peace. | Interests include: mobile innovations | supply chain management | trade facilitation | business development | community-led initiatives | macroeconomic trends | This blog is a compilation of the above - enjoy and drop me a line to join in the conversation!

Posted on October 16, 2014, in Memory of Love and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.

  1. bersabellyeshitla

    The language that Aminatta Forna uses throughout the book is generally beautiful. She is careful in her word choice and poetically descriptive.
    When first reading this quote, I also thought that it should have come from Adrian. Forna makes it clear that Adrian is growing impatient with his wife, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that he is no longer in love with her. With his daughter in the picture, and other differences, Adrian’s interpretation of love is easily subject to change. But I believe this quote is much deeper. It is beyond the idea of a relationship between two people. Kai’s message on the memory of love depicts the importance of the love one has for one’s country. Accepting that change is inevitable, Kai must learn to love his country in a new manner.

  2. I agree with you on many points of your post and would like to continue the metaphor further. I think it is interesting that how Forna shows Kai as a focused and pointed individual who is very serious, when he should be recovering from the trauma of a massive war. He works to recover, he likes to see practical progress in his mission However, Adrian as an outsider seems to be breaking the nation more so than fixing it, he has taken on two patients almost as specimens that are interesting to him. I believe that this is a way to look back on colonialism and what the affect of that enduring mentality can have on war torn nations which were ruled by those returning only a few decades ago. I know that we are starting to change topics and focuses in the class but, it is important to remember the roots of the issues that we are reading about in this novel now and how the relationships can be symbolic of those as well.

%d bloggers like this: