The Devil That Danced on the Water: A Daughter's Quest


Praised as “a shining example of what autobiography can be: harrowing, illuminating and thoughtful” (USA Today), Aminatta Forna’s intensely personal history is a passionate and vivid account of an idyllic childhood which became the stuff of nightmare. As a child she witnessed the upheavals of post-colonial Africa, danger, flight, the bitterness or exile in Britain and the terrible consequences of her dissident father’s stand against tyranny.

Mohamed Forna was a man of ...

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The Devil That Danced on the Water: A Daughter's Quest

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Praised as “a shining example of what autobiography can be: harrowing, illuminating and thoughtful” (USA Today), Aminatta Forna’s intensely personal history is a passionate and vivid account of an idyllic childhood which became the stuff of nightmare. As a child she witnessed the upheavals of post-colonial Africa, danger, flight, the bitterness or exile in Britain and the terrible consequences of her dissident father’s stand against tyranny.

Mohamed Forna was a man of unimpeachable integrity and enchanting charisma. As Sierra Leone faced its future as a fledgling democracy, he was a new star in the political firmament, a man who had been one of the first black students to come to Britain after the war. He stole the heart of Aminatta’s mother to the dismay of her Presbyterian parents and returned with her to Sierra Leone. But as Aminatta Forna shows with compelling clarity, the old Africa was torn apart by new ways of western parliamentary democracy, which gave birth only to dictatorships and corruption of hitherto undreamed-of magnitude. It was not long before Mohamed Forna languished in jail as a prisoner of conscience, and worse to follow.

Aminatta’s search for the truth that shaped both her childhood and the nation’s destiny began among the country’s elite and took her into the heart of rebel territory. Determined to break the silence surrounding her father’s fate, she ultimately uncovered a conspiracy that penetrated the highest reaches of government and forced the nation’s politicians and judiciary to confront their guilt. The Devil that Danced on the Water is a book of pain and anger and sorrow, written with tremendous dignity and beautiful precision: a remarkable, and important, story of Africa.

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Editorial Reviews

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Aminatta Forna's memoir is a beautifully wrought, deeply personal portrait of the tragic events that derailed Sierra Leone's nascent democracy movement in the 1970s. Ms. Forna's British-educated father, a physician and onetime government minister in Sierra Leone, struggled with his colleagues to bring freedom to the long-suffering, oft-exploited people of this desperately poor nation, only to face ultimate betrayal. In emerging African governments, as elsewhere, power is known to corrupt. Sierra Leone was no exception, but Dr. Forna was. For this reason, the praetorian government of Siaka Stevens tried him and 13 others on charges that would have been utterly laughable had the results been less appalling: They were all summarily executed.

As a child, Aminatta asked her father to sign her autograph book. He chose a quote from Alexander Pope's "An Essay on Man": "Honour and shame from no condition rise; Act well your part: there all the honour lies." Unknowingly, Dr. Forna passed on to his young daughter the words by which he chose to live and die.

By turns gorgeous and painful, blissful and disquieting, The Devil That Danced on the Water evokes the blessed ignorance of childhood even as it narrates the hideous fallout of wholesale slaughter. Forna tells her story with poignancy and no hint of self-pity. Clear-eyed and objective, she expresses a sense of personal liberation that readers will also feel when one -- and only one -- of those who gave false testimony against her father in exchange for money or a job finally apologizes. Dr. Forma's daughter has written a radiant and extremely accomplished tribute. (Winter 2002 Selection)

The New Yorker
In 1975, Mohamed Forna, a doctor and leading Sierra Leonean dissident, was executed for treason. A quarter century later, his daughter, who was ten when he was arrested, began to investigate his death. Her lucid, exacting memoir recounts indelible scenes: in bed with malaria, she watches a soldier ransack her room; when her stepmother goes to plead for her father's life, Aminatta asks her to get the President's autograph. She interviews the men who gave false testimony against her father, and discerns in their matter-of-fact responses a "lack of expectation" that defines life in Sierra Leone after decades of violence. In a telling episode, her stepmother takes pity on one of these witnesses, who is now destitute, and hires him as a cook. The author wonders if it is in this way, "together under the same roof," that she and her countrymen must learn to live with the past.
Publishers Weekly
Forna saw her father for the last time on July 30, 1974; she was 10 years old. In this harrowing memoir-cum-detective story, journalist Forna searches for the truth about her father's execution in Sierra Leone after his treason conviction for allegedly attempting a coup upon the government in which he had once been a cabinet minister. Mohamed Forna, a British-educated doctor and activist in what was, in the 1960s, a fledgling democracy extricating itself from British colonialist rule, resigned from what had become a dictatorship rife with corruption and chaos. The consequences of that resignation culminated in eight executions and precipitated the descent into anarchy of Africa's poorest nation. Forna writes with a compelling mix of distance and anguish, intent on explaining her father's death and reclaiming his memory. Lush descriptions of her idyllic childhood provide eerie counterpoint to chilling depictions of the hell Sierra Leone had become upon her return in recent years, a place where bands of child warriors, hacking off limbs as both punishment and warning, have created a mutilated populace. The poverty her father tried to fight remains the only constant in the war-torn land. A harsh critic of her father's executioners, Forna nevertheless equivocates on the dictatorships that have wreaked havoc throughout Africa, querying her own identity as a diaspora mixed-race Afro-European. Reminiscent of Isabelle Allende's House of the Spirits, Forna's work is a powerfully and elegantly written mix of complex history, riveting memoir and damning expos . Agent, David Godwin. (Jan.) Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information.
Library Journal
Forna, a writer and broadcaster who lives in London, has written this memoir as an act of catharsis and discovery. The daughter of a white British mother and a black African father from Sierra Leone, Forna focuses on her attempts to discover why her father, Mohamed, who became a prisoner of conscience, was executed for treason while she was a teenager going to school in England. Her journey is both mental and physical. She reexamines her childhood memories in painful detail and describes her later trips to Sierra Leone as an investigative reporter with a personal mission. After extensive interviews with some of her father's accusers, she shows conclusively that he was framed by his political enemies, who were led by the president of the country. More than a tale of vindication, this book is filled with powerful descriptions and moving details and if overly long is nevertheless an important work. Highly recommended for most libraries. [Previewed in Prepub Alert, LJ 19/15/02.]-A.O. Edmonds, Ball State Univ., Muncie, IN Copyright 2003 Cahners Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
London-based broadcaster Forna somberly chronicles her search for the truth about her father’s 1974 arrest and subsequent hanging in Sierra Leone. Mohamed Forna was the first of his family, a regionally powerful clan, to attend university. He studied medicine at St. Andrew’s in Scotland and in the 1960s went back to Sierra Leone with his young white wife. Their daughter begins her story with a description of the first ten years of her own life, leading up to the day she last saw her father, accused of carrying out a bombing attack on a government minister. Forna recalls that her parents were initially happy together during the years he ran a small clinic and hospital he had founded in a rural area to help his people. But her father’s increasing involvement in politics led to estrangement, the couple separated, and her mother took the children briefly to Scotland. They returned when Mohammed was appointed Finance Minister, but the marriage continued to unravel, as did the country. Forna affectingly but dispassionately details Sierra Leone’s long, bloody spiral—still ongoing—into chaos. Her father was removed from office. Corrupt dictators ended democratic rule, destroyed the economy, and ruthlessly punished opponents like Mohammed Forna, who believed in democracy. His daughter also describes her encounters with racism as a child at English schools, her mother’s remarriage and disappearance from their lives, and her relations with Mohammed’s new wife, who had to protect his children as well as try to save his life. Returning to Sierra Leone in the early ’90s was not easy; Forna’s investigation into her father’s death revealed unrepentant complicity and lying that said much aboutthe current state of politics in a country that has wantonly destroyed its future. A searing indictment of African tyranny mingled with bittersweet childhood memories. First printing of 35,000; $50,000 ad/promo
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780802140487
  • Publisher: Grove/Atlantic, Inc.
  • Publication date: 12/15/2003
  • Edition description: First Trade Paper Edition
  • Pages: 403
  • Sales rank: 495,043
  • Product dimensions: 5.92 (w) x 8.96 (h) x 1.06 (d)

Meet the Author

Aminatta Forna is an author, broadcaster and journalist.

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