I really enjoyed this book (by Aminatta Forna);

someone is definitely getting it for Christmas. I don’t know whether it’s good or insufferable, but reading lots of books makes it really easy for me to Christmas shop. I only give books, gift cards, and charitable donations. It really simplifies things. Well, that’s my lifestyle blog tip for the day, on to the book.

Here are the basics. This is the story of two people, who meet on the street in London randomly and the first week and a half they spend together-ish in London. Attila is a large African man (from Accra, Ghana), a psychiatrist who works with genocide/war/atrocity survivors around the world and is in London to give the key note address at a conference; Jean is an American (New Englander) who runs studies of urban coyote and fox populations working in London. The two meet on a bridge when Jean, following a fox, bumps into Attila. The two then fall into friendship, Jean (along with a small army of Africans mostly from Ghana and Sierra Leon who work as garbage men, doormen, street performers, in hotels in London) helps Attila find a friend’s little boy and take care of him, Attila also deals with a close friend/former lover with Early Onset Alzheimer’s (THIS WAS NOT ON THE BOOK COVER BLURB BUT IT JUST REALLY FIGURES), and Attila also consults as an expert on a case where a woman is accused of arson and her lawyers are trying to get Attila to get her off by saying she has PTSD. It’s much more complicated, but you get the point. There is also quite a bit about urban foxes, coyotes, and wolves.

What is difficult to describe is how much this book delves into grief (and happiness), recovery, how humans treat one another, what humans expect from him, how life experiences impact each of us. Some of it is quite depressing, Attila tells Jean:

I’m not being cynical, just realistic. War is in the blood of humans. The kind of people who torture and rape during war, they’re always among us, every time you walk down a busy street you’re passing killers waiting to kill. War gives them license. We tell ourselves people are ordinarily good, but where’s the proof of that? There are no ordinarily good people, just a lot of people who’ve never been offered the opportunity to be anything else.

Gah. I mean. I don’t necessarily disagree, but I want to. Attila has quite a few REALLY depressing insights, but he also manages to be a confident problem solver, so I’d want him by my side were I looking for a small boy lost in London, dealing with a dying woman, or helping with a kidnapping hand-off in a war torn country.

Attila thinks a lot about how people react to the difficulties in life; he’s a psychiatrist so he recognizes some people are mentally ill, but he pushes convention a bit, in a way I agree with — sometimes you’re not experiencing PTSD or depression, or anything clinical, sometimes you’re experiencing emotions. Sadness, grief, these can be appropriate to the situation, even if they are long lasting, that doesn’t mean that you’re damaged — it’s the difference between someone who has a major depressive episode, and someone who’s husband dies and they’re sad, they’re not themselves exactly, they will become a new slightly different person, but they’re doing it, they’re dealing with their emotions (Attila, explaining the forty day mourning period to a Brit says “It is the end of formal mourning, not the end of sorrow”). It takes time certainly, but you can come out stronger on the other side:

There is nothing inevitable about the impact of trauma, except perhaps the way the victim is going to be treated by professionals like us, who will then ascribe every subsequent difficulty in their lives to what has happened to them in the past. We don’t blame victims any longer, instead we condemn them. We treat them like damaged goods and in doing so we compound the pain of whatever wound has been inflicted and we encourage everyone around them to do the same. The fact of the matter is that most people who have endured trauma do so without lasting negative effects, be we overlook the ones who cope because we [psychiatrists] never see them. It’s a simple logical fallacy. You already have the answer, so you construct the supporting argument. Trauma causes suffering, suffering causes damage. But what we don’t know is whether the absence of adverse life events creates the ideal conditions for human development. We just assume it does. … What is life without incident? Is such a life even possible? How do we become human except in the face of adversity?

Sorry, that’s rather long, but it’s sort of the point of the book as far as I’m concerned. And I think this quote helps make clear I am BY NO MEANS belittling mental illness. But, not every bad thing that happens causes mental illness. No one can live a life where nothing bad happens, the bad things make you who you are. Sometimes, they are truly terrible things. A life without sadness of some sort is impossible, and yet, so many of us get up every morning and face the day.

Attila has a rather pragmatic view of the world, he explains near the beginning of the book, “You know, a lot of people nowadays believe they’re owed a happy ending.” The nice thing about this book though, is that it does have lots of happy endings. Lots of sad things happen, but many people end up okay.

There are many other things I could say about this book, many other passages that touched me or made me think. But I’ll spare you and suggest you read the book.

Currently reading: And Then We Had Everything: On Motherhood Before I was Ready by Meghan O’Connell. And currently taking 10 books on vacation with me next week. So… no posts for a while, but I’ll have plenty to talk about when I’m back on June 30.