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

4.06  ·  Rating details ·  763 ratings  ·  92 reviews
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 ...more
Paperback, 416 pages
Published December 18th 2003 by Grove Press (first published May 1st 2002)
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In 1974 when the author was ten, her father Mohamed Forna was arrested, taken from their home and accused of treason. On July 19, 1975, he and seven other Sierra Leonean dissidents were executed. He was a doctor by profession but had become involved in politics. Under the Government of the All People’s Congress (APC) he was Minister of Finance from 1968 – 1970. With growing disenchantment of Sjaka Stevens' leadership, rampant corruption and violence, he resigned. Between 1970 and 1973 he sat in ...more
Dec 26, 2019 rated it really liked it
"Ours was a country of immeasurable beauty, at once full of promise yet riven with unknowable perils."

(Sierra Leone. Creative Commons image by Brian Harrington Spier)

There is something that African countries ridden with war (should I say all countries?) have in common: those signs of "early manifestations of tyranny: the end of the rule of law and the descent into anarchy." This was Aminatta Forna's father's concerns when he first saw those signs. A Sierra-Leone medical doctor trained in Scotlan
Aug 27, 2015 rated it it was amazing
I picked up this book with absolutely no knowledge of its contents. Having read one of Forna's works of fiction previously, I was expecting a novel. In my blissful ignorance, I think I encountered one of the best written works I have read with elements of the auto-biographical and investigative journalism genres at their best. This is her real life story, of her British-educated Sierra Leonean father and his incredible passion for a country with so much potential, yet destroyed by greed corrupti ...more
I take my hat off to the author, her research abilities and her stylist writing. A sad memoir about her early life before the arrest of her father, Mohamed Forna, one-time Minister of Finance in Sierra Leonne who made the mistake of being too popular and too good in his job. The author then had to wait 30 years to be able to obtain the records of his trial and execution from US, UN, and many other sources.
Sierra Leone is a failed state and the author's upbringing in the 1970s was just at the sta
Bivisyani Questibrilia
Jul 26, 2017 rated it it was amazing
I didn't actually know anything about this book when I picked it up, but I recognised Aminatta Forna's name from another book I've been meaning to read. In hindsight, I feel I should've recognised her name far sooner through a different story. All I know is that this book tells the story of her memoir—of what and why, exactly, I had no clue. I prefer not to read the synopsis of a book upon buying it—and, most of the time, I pick up the right ones. Upon reading the preface/acknowledgement, I real ...more
Dec 16, 2011 rated it liked it
This is a pretty good book about recent Sierra Leonean history. The author's father played an important role in S L government at the time of its transfer from British colonialism to self-rule, and according to Forna, everything he did was correct and upstanding, whereas all the others were corrupt, self-serving and basically, evil. I do not know enough detail about political historians' views of the 70s, 80s and 90s to know if this is correct or not. I do know that multiple attrocities were com ...more
Mar 12, 2017 rated it liked it
While I admire her courage in investigating the heart-breaking sham trial and murder of her father in Sierra Leone, the writing style not so much. I thought the book needed an editor as I found her stream of consciousness and flipping back and forth in time disconcerting. I frequently had to reread passages to discover if she was in Scotland, Sierra Leone, or England. That said, a good addition to the literature on West Africa and Sierra Leone in particular.
Solid 3.5

The Devil That Danced On The Water: A Daughter's Quest, is about Aminatta Forna's father Dr. Mohammed Forna, a politician in Sierra Leone during the civil war. This is a hard book to review mainly because it is one part memoir and another part biography. The writer is very close to the issue presented and it is clear that she really did her due diligence.

I knew very little about Sierra Leone's prickly history, so I appreciated that historical content. I got a great look into the count
Oh my God this is literally like the most boring book I have ever read please can I give it 0 stars..? Honestly I think it was the narration I wasn't fond of here. I go back and forth between reading an actual book and listening in the car or before bedtime. This being a true story I believe it's remarkable that the author lived through this place in time and came out on the other side to tell the tale. I'd made the decision to give up on a book if there is nothing keeping me interested within t ...more
Jan 15, 2009 rated it it was amazing
This book has been compared to Wild Swans (for the childhood memories) and to The House of the Spirits (for the dissident political stuff). Quite apart from my personal interest in the subject (I was a Peace Corps teacher in Freetown a few years before the events in this book), I found it a sensitive memoir in which the writer is superb at rendering childhood memories of her parents' two cultures as well as an amazing personal journey during which she uses her investigative journalistism skills ...more
Mar 30, 2008 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: Marian Douglas
The book is a memoir of her father Dr Mohammed Forna, a Sierra Leone politician, who was executed by the government of Shaka Stevens of Sierra Leone. The book begins when she is 10 years old on the day her father was taken away never to be seen again by his family. Ms Forna then returns to her beginnings in Scotland and then on to life in the Forna family in Sierra Leone running parallel with the violent politics of post colonial Africa - coups, counter coups, deception, bribery, lies, torture a ...more
A devastating but beautifully written memoir of a childhood in Sierra Leone and Britain, and the rise and fall of her father Mohamed Forna, a finance minister in the Sierra Leone government.
Harry Rutherford
Aminatta Forna’s father was a doctor, then activist and politician in Sierra Leone, rising to be Minister of Finance for a while before resigning in public protest at corruption in the government. But she was born in Scotland to a Scottish mother while her father was studying medicine there.

Unfortunately politics in Sierra Leone was a dangerous business. We learn at the very start of the book that, when she was ten, her father was arrested and she never saw him again, but exactly what happened t
May 09, 2020 rated it really liked it
It would have been yet another memoir, but what makes it powerful is the attempt to find salve for her wounds from her father’s death in the hands of a dictatorial regimen. It brings Sierra Leone to life, the beautiful Krio phrases are one of the many delights of this book.
Sep 09, 2018 rated it it was amazing
Ms. Forna memoir of her childhood in Sierra Leone is beyond harrowing. She wrote an important book about Africa and gratitude is in order. I learned more than I wanted about betrayal and political jockeying that I could bear. That she was able to gather her elegance, wits and grace about her in this tragic ugly tale is quite remarkable.
Jun 21, 2013 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: africa
Having worked extensively in Sierra Leone after the terrible civil war I found the insights into the period between Independence from Great Britain and the collapse of the country long regarded as a model colony, sad and fascinating. The greed of the coastal elites, the predatory relationship between the long established Lebanese and other trading families and the political elites, and the contempt in which the educated elite regarded the peoples of the interior, all comes through clearly in thi ...more
Oct 28, 2013 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: sierra-leone
forna's bio and chronicle of her investigation into her father's disappearance/murder by the ruling regime (just before RUP exploded and started cutting off hands, selling blood diamonds, giving drugs to their child soldiers etc) in sierra leone. aminatta is daughter of mohamad forna (scottish trained md, and past finance minister to sierra leone) and scottish mom. mom bailed about when aminatta was 8 or so, never to really enter back into her childrens' or husband's lives.
so this book really i
Denise Ervin
Jun 18, 2014 rated it it was amazing
This story is at once a political thriller, a historical text, and a biography. Aminatta Forna manages to skillfully weave her father's personal journey with her own, giving the reader an experience that is as painful as it is poignant. This Sierra Leonean journalist makes the harrowing journey from the daugher of a prominent physician and political leader to defending his legacy and name in the wake of his execution as a traitor, educating as she entertains. This tale of personal tragedy in a p ...more
Chris Annear
Dec 31, 2007 rated it it was amazing
This memoir tells an intimate story of growing up in Sierra Leone, including Forna's investigation into her father's execution by the Sierra Leonean government. Mohamed, Aminatta's father, was a former minister in Siaka Stevens' increasingly violent and clientelist administration. Overtime, he became an icon of political virtue and a major opposition figure, once he resigned from the cabinet,. This is a beautifully written book that slowly builds from a series of recollections to a painful saga ...more
Amy Heap
Nov 09, 2012 rated it really liked it
I knew almost nothing of Sierra Leone before I read this book, despite the fact that I know there are people in my town who had to leave it. This was one of those books that had me running to the Internet to find out more about the country, the food, the culture. It is a sad story about a post-colonial country trying to find its political feet. Mohamed Forna, the author's father, was a man of great integrity, who loved his country and gave his all for its people. It is a beautifully written memo ...more
Dec 18, 2016 rated it it was amazing
One reviewer describes this book as "enormously compelling and painful reading". I couldn't agree more, as I found myself crying more than a few times. This book is pain and love and history. It's a daughter's quest to understand how and why her father was hanged by a government that wanted nothing more than to obliterate his existence. It's Aminatta Forna's Sierra Leone. The country of her childhood, and the one the greed of a few big men did not permit her to experience.
Kate M
Sep 28, 2018 rated it liked it
I related to Aminatta's experience in one small way, and that was living between the UK and Afric as a child. That was as far as it went and the whole experience of living in a very politically Unstable country, Sierra Leone in the 70's) must have been a scary and unsettling experience for the family.

Briefly the story is - Aminatta's dad is chosen in his family to go to the UK to train to be a doctor. He meets a Scottish lady who he marries and after he has trained she comes to Africa to live. T
Nov 18, 2017 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: memoir, africa
Aminatta was the youngest of Mohammed Forna's three children and was ten years old when the Sierra Leonean dictatorship took him from his home. Aminatta tells story in two parts: the first is the story seen through the eye of Aminatta at 10 years old and effectively conveys the joy, mystery, and increasing danger after her father enters politics then resigns his post. As the reader, we are left with many questions and glimpses of happenings we do not understand.

In the second half of the book we
Andrea Roach
Aug 11, 2018 rated it it was amazing
The Devil That Danced on the Water will take you through the gamut of emotion. Forna skillfully begins the book bringing the reading into her world as a child who adores her doctor father on the day he is taken from her. It's a cliffhanger we only that it's the last time we ever saw him and it's a shock. From there, I was willing to follow Forna through the next 389 pages through this world of political corruption, racism, child soldiers, class strata, heat and dust, tradition and modernity. I f ...more
Jan 01, 2020 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
I knew very little about the history of Sierra Leone , which is a very sad tale of a beautiful country ruined by greed, corruption and western interference. The author’s father was educated at university in the West and had a vision for his country that unfortunately didn’t mesh well with the dictators that took over during the time he was in politics. The terrible fate he met is part of African history. The author’s mother was a Scot , so her life was lived between the two worlds, ironically tr ...more
Nov 03, 2019 rated it really liked it
This book is important as, once again, we discover the dirty modern political history of a post-Colonial African nation; this time, it is Sierra Leone. However, the book is in serious need of a good editor as it rambles and provides unnecessary details that bog down the reading. If you want to know more about the ugly, violent, corrupt political scene in Sierre Leone, you will find it worthwhile. For the author herself, writing the book must have been cathartic as she brings into global view the ...more
Brooks Goddard
Apr 18, 2020 rated it it was amazing
This book is a special read. It is a memoir that expands with its telling. Which is to say that the narrator depicts the first 10 years or her life and the last 10 years of her father’s live through the prism of a 36 year old adult remembering her youth. Understanding and perspective emerge as you read. The story itself is spectacular, its unfolding vexing. Mohamed Forna returned to Sierra Leone in 1968 with a white wife and 3 children. Aminatta was the second daughter and the youngest child. Sh ...more
Jan 09, 2018 rated it really liked it
Beautifully written account of Forna’s childhood spread across Sierra Leone, Scotland and London, and her later quest as an adult to understand the circumstances of her father’s arrest and trial. As her father moves from being a rural doctor to involvement in politics, at one point becoming Minister of Finance but at other points imprisoned and in exile, this becomes not just a memoir of an unusual childhood but also a story of Sierra Leonean history post independence. An interesting read.
Feb 13, 2018 rated it really liked it
Shelves: library-loans
Hell of a story, that despite being non-fiction has an otherwordly feel as a young child moves between rural Aberdeenshire, post colonial Sierra Leone and London. Ultimately shocking and rage inducing , however I also found it difficult to keep track of everyone since so many people appear in the story across multiple timeframes.

Really need to read more about Africa maybe I'll start with Wilbur Smith since my Mum loves him.
Mar 30, 2018 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
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Aminatta’s books have been translated into eighteen languages. Her essays have appeared in Freeman’s, Granta, The Guardian, LitHub, The Nation, The New York Review of Books, The Observer and Vogue. She has written stories for BBC radio and written and presented television documentaries including “The Lost Libraries of Timbuktu” (BBC Television, 2009) and “Girl Rising” (CNN, 2013).

Aminatta is a Fel

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