In the present timeline, Elias Cole is a man suffering from terminal Pulmonary Fibrosis and is on his deathbed reflecting on his past to his psychologist. From his reflections we learn that Elias was a professor of History who strived to be someone he was not. The reader watches him recount the development of a strong obsession with his colleague’s wife, Saffia, and how he went after her in full pursuit. Elias himself admitted that his love for this woman was like “the terror of a storm” (Forna 97). Even his thought patterns were distracted and scattered with the ideas of her. He consistently provides the reader with his perception of the way that she acts and it starts to become overwhelming and almost disturbing as we see his powerful obsession develop.
Through his narration we discover major flaws in Elias’s personality. He is insecure, lonely, and lacks strong morals. He also is very hypocritical of others, especially when it comes to his rival character, Julius (Forna 349). Along with these drawbacks within his personality, Elias proves to be very manipulative in his ways. Elias likes to test the waters in his friendship with Saffia. Early on in the reading, everytime Elias has an encounter with Saffia, he immediately looks to Julius to see his reaction. With Julius not seeing Elias as a threat, Elias continued to push his limits even more. Certain events caused Elias to feel resentment and jealousy towards Julius’ relationship with Saffia and this feeling eventually turns into “a flicker of hate” which leads to disastrous consequences (Forna 100).
As the story progresses, we see that once Elias achieves the life he once envied, he is still not happy. Even with Saffia as his wife, a daughter, an administrative position at the university, wealth etc., Elias still searches for other happiness. At this point, the reader learns of his long-term affair with Vanessa which further confirms Elias’s selfishness and weak morals. In addition to his affair, we learn that Elias has acquired a promotion at the university, and undertakes more political power. He becomes, in a sense, a spy for the government and patrols the university for activist movements (Forna 336). Elias gets so caught up in this, that he uses his daughter’s status as a student to his advantage (Forna 350). His actions end up tarnishing his relationship with his daughter, Mamakay, and the consequences of his actions are reflected as he approaches the end of his life with no family by his side.
The Memory of Love is narrated by Elias, making for an unreliable account of the events of his life. As mentioned earlier, Elias explains his feelings for Saffia from his point of view; however, from the outside looking in, the questions of reciprocity, oblivion, and obsession arise. Aside from the strong feelings Elias has for Saffia, his actions reflect the objectification of women. On several accounts, Elias illustrates encounters he has with women. He engages in one-night stands and treats the women he dates with aloofness and disinterest. Elias Cole’s true identity is revealed through numerous confessions in the text, yet we find Elias constantly justifying his actions without taking responsibility for the things he has done.
Julius is Elias’s colleague at the university and the husband of Saffia. He is a professor in the engineering department and a political activist. Julius is described to the reader through the eyes of Elias, which holds a strong, hateful bias. He is portrayed as a popular, social, confident and hopeful man and is considered the life of the party since he brings a crowd with him whenever he goes out to social gatherings (Forna 107). Julius seems to be a very strong figure and feels confident in his abilities; however, he suffers from severe asthma, which ultimately leads to his death. He is very approachable and seems to do all the right things when it came to pleasing Saffia. Julius has great trust in Saffia, which leads to an oblivious attitude about the actions of Elias Cole toward his wife. At times, it seems as if Julius portrays an oblivious attitude on purpose in fear of confronting the situation and losing his wife, Saffia to Elias Cole. On the contrary, Julius’ “oblivious” attitude could be a figment of Elias’s imagination since his obsession with Saffia blinds him from reality.
Julius’ political activism is centered around the moon landing, leading to the final straw that results in his arrest, detainment, and death. While Julius’s arrest is never directly explained, it is inferred that he used Elias’s office to write articles and encourage an agenda that spoke out against the government. Ultimately, Julius is a bold, political activist.
Saffia was Julius’s wife, and the object of Elias’s romantic obsession. She was a botanist and put a lot of her time and energy into her exquisite garden, which was full of lilies and orchids. These flowers associate to the tranquil yet fragile life that Saffia lived. The flowers also are depicted in images of love and seduction, playing into the complications between her and Elias. It is up to the reader to decipher her interpretation of Elias’s advances. Saffia showed varying responses to Elias as the novel progresses. She treated Elias as a mutual friend of her husband, engaging in conversation and showing comfort and familiarity around him. At one point, Elias paid a visit to her house and Saffia took photographs of him. These actions can be interpreted as either an acceptance on Saffia’s part, or as a harmless act of practicing her photography. One way of thinking about the motives and mind of Saffia is that she was oblivious to the ulterior motive that Elias possessed. Saffia, for the most part, seemed happy to be with Julius and enjoyed her friendship with Elias. However, it is clear to most that Saffia craved the attention while staying away from the commitment that an affair would hold. With that being said, there are several ways the reader can interpret this unique situation between Elias, Saffia, and Julius. As the novel continued, Saffia’s mood towards Elias became slightly altered as she began to distance herself from him. The actions of Saffia all come from Elias’s point of view, leading the reader to be cautious in developing an opinion about the relationship between Elias and Saffia. After being widowed, she married Elias and had a daughter.
Her daughter, Mamakay, shed more light as to the distance in Elias and Saffia’s marriage. Mamakay talked about Saffia’s activist friends, leading the reader to question if Saffia is also an activist, and Saffia’s drive to hide this side of herself from Elias in fear of him/his position in the university administration (Forna 335). Mamakay also described Saffia as an “extremely composed woman to the point it seemed she was holding something back”, adding even more mystery to Saffia’s character. Saffia never confronted Elias about his affair, and seemingly this was a fair exchange of the secrets they kept from eachother (Forna 349).
Adrian is a british psychologist, as well as a bit of an outsider, who came to Sierra Leone with the intentions to help the PTSD, post-civil war society. Adrian has faced a great deal of challenges in his life, specifically within his professional career. Adrian can be labeled as a humanitarian through his work and personal ideals. As his background develops, the reader discovers that Adrian was a rather established psychologist in England. He owned his own private practice and had a publication about proactive responses after major disasters (Forna 65). Adrian was drawn to the study of stress disorders which stemmed from a fascination of stories about shell-shocked soldiers and from hearing his mother talk about her experience in an air-raid shelter (Forna 64). From the reading, it can be inferred that some of Adrian’s discontent and with his profession was self inflicted by the feeling of his career being at a standstill, with no progress in sight. The reader learns that Adrian left his ‘failed’ profession in England to revamp his practice in Africa. This job was a way of avoiding his former life in England and his crumbling marriage.
Despite this move, Adrian still feels out of place and somewhat lost. But Agnes, a patient at a mental institution who switches from wandering unknowingly and being fully aware of her surroundings, is a character that makes him feel like he is fulfilling his purpose in Sierra Leone. Adrian’s dedication to his field and professional personality becomes apparent when Agnes enters his life. The story portrays him as patient and determined psychologist. He shows diligence in trying to diagnose this woman and goes to many lengths to piece together her story. Adrian diagnoses Agnes and attempts to help her by learning about her background. The work that he does at the mental institution makes him feel like he is making a difference. However, with time Adrian sees how ineffective he is there. The good intentions that he had so much of, have proven to be insufficient. His lack of cultural awareness/knowledge, his social isolation, and his Western views of psychology make his efforts useless. For example, the audience can interpret Adrian as misdiagnosing Agnes due to his lack of cultural awareness. This is clearly seen by his methods of practice. Adrian was trained in a very Westernized manner, with talking and addressing emotions as a way of therapy. The culture that he is currently practicing in, however, believes that silence is the best way to handle distress and psychological trauma. The disconnect between Adrian’s training and the beliefs in Sierra Leone create a barrier between Adrian and his goals of helping those in need of psychological care.
Adrian is hired to be Elias’s private psychologist, yet he becomes more of a human diary for Elias’s life reflections. Through his work with Elias he learns a lot about the culture and political issues that surround the country. He also pieces together that the woman he has an affair with (and falls in love with) is Elias’s daughter and Kai’s ex-love, only complicating relationships more (Forna 343). Adrian and Mamakay get pregnant, but unfortunately, Mamakay dies due to complications during childbirth. After this incident, Adrian moves back to England and ends up living a mediocre life.
Kai is a local Sierra Leone surgeon who works in the same hospital as Adrian. Under unusual circumstances the two become close friends. Kai is able to see a concerning side of Adrian’s presence in Sierra Leone especially when he thinks of Agnes being a “holy grail” or “trophy” for making it big in the psychological practice.
Kai suffers from his own psychological issues. He has treated the medical traumas of the civil war and this weighs its own form of PTSD. The unimaginable, unforgettable things that he saw prove to be mental blocks. For example, he saw victims of machete attacks and gun wounds and the broad effects these wounds had in the lives of the victims. He saw a lot of death too. In one instance, Kai shared the story of when he and a nurse were captured and tortured. The brutality of the torture contrasted with the innocence of the nurse made her death all the more traumatic for both the reader and Kai (Forna 429-434). These memories of war cause nightmares that take their toll on Kai’s mood and his physical well being. Eventually his lack of sleep and complete exhaustion disrupts his surgeon abilities, shown when he had to excuse himself from the middle of an important surgery to calm his shaking hands (Forna 242).
Kai is not a religious man despite his family’s practices. Whether this was due to his PTSD, his education or some other force the reader does not know, but it is clear that Kai is unhappy with his life in Sierra Leone. He reflects on how he stayed in the country while his best friend, Tejani, left to participate in the American Dream. Kai begins the process of applying to move to America and start a new life there. He also reflects on Nenebah, his love that got away, and the reader senses guilt in both of these relationship losses. He experiences dreams of time with Nenebah, often marked with lust and pleasantries. These memories come to him when he cannot sleep or at other unguarded moments. When he wakes up from dreaming of her, he compares it to amputees that had limbs removed but can still feel pain, not real pain but the memory of pain. Every day when he wakes up he experiences something similar, not love, but the ‘memory of love’ which is constantly on his mind (Forna 185).
In order to distract himself from the loneliness he faces, Kai keeps himself quite busy. He is always doing something. He’s either working, cooking, volunteering, or spending time with Adrian or his young cousin, Abass. Kai can think more clearly when he cooks and that’s why he likes to spend time in the kitchen. According to Kai, “keeping busy is the one way he knows to keep things under control” (Forna 92). Kai has a special relationship with Abass and their times together show a Kai’s gentle side. Abass brings joy and hope to Kai in ways his life otherwise lacks. Kai is given another sense of hope when he sees Nenebah, but is then stricken with heartbreak and pain as he sees the emotional connection between Adrian and Nenebah. He holds back and becomes distant from Adrian as he internalizes the pain he feels. Kai is in the hospital when Nenebah is rushed in and Kai, being the doctor, has to deliver her baby. Complications during labor result in Nenebah’s passing and Kai blames it on Adrian. Through the death of Nenebah, Kai and Adrian are able to heal the wounds of their friendship. Nenebah’s baby survives and is left in Sierra Leone with Kai as Adrian returns home to England.
Forna, A. (2011). The memory of love. London: Bloomsbury.