“How do we become human except in the face of adversity?”

Of the 50 or so books I read each year, a few books stand out and remain with me, and I wonder if those are the books which are wide in scope, yet focused in message. Burnt Shadows by Kamila Shamsie is one of these.  Shamsie creates links from Hiroshima (hence the burnt shadows) to Pakistan and the United States and the “war against terror” to question our perception of events.  Similarly, Happiness by Aminatta Forna is wide in scope ranging from the wolf-hunting in the US in the 1830s through war zones in Africa and the Middle East to fox-hunting in urban London, to focus on modern humanity increasingly ill at ease with itself.  This is a clumsy summary; Forna’s writing is not so.  The threads of her narrative are drawn together with powerful impact (for me, at least).  One such thread, through the character of American scientist Jean Turane who is studying foxes in London, is our relationship with animals both wild and domestic, and there is animal imagery in character descriptions: the eyes (human) which “hunted” in an unguarded moment on waking, the bite on the wrist administered by a woman who, having lost her mind, reverts to instinct.  Such animal connections are not new but the way they intersect across the narrative threads gives fresh insights, and the way in which the writing triggers connections in the mind of the reader is what memorable writing does.

Can ‘knowing better’ change ingrained habits?  William Golding talked of the “off campus curriculum”; the habits and beliefs we are instilled with before knowledge can take hold. Significantly, the two main characters in Happiness are experts in their fields. Jean’s story is intersected by that of Ghanaian psychiatrist Dr Attila Asare, an expert on Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, a major thread in the book.  In London to deliver a key note speech at a conference, he considers the city about him and thinks of those who live “in terror of what they cannot control” as “glass dwellers” who are “terrified of the cloche being lifted. They treated the suffering of others as something exceptional, something that required treatment, when what was exceptional was all this…All of this.”  Attila and Jean both “lift the cloche” in their lives (in italicised flashbacks and in the present) and encounter danger and discomfort but are better people for it.  Forna batters at that glass throughout the novel, in the ladybirds against Jean’s windows, and the woman behind the window of her house tearing out her hair – whose nervous disorder will be healed by the roof garden Jean constructs for her.  It questions how we deal, or fail to deal, with challenges such as human migration, animal migration: foxes in urban areas, the brightly-coloured parakeets in the park (which reminded me that I had seen these in Greenwich), our treatment of the elderly and the grief of our neighbours.  People migrate, animals migrate.  Both experience hostile reactions.  A 13 year old student of mine who knows a lot about ants (just as Jean in the book is an expert on foxes) recently questioned my killing of ants in the house with, “That’s not very nice” and a hard stare. I was reminded of this when, at the end of the novel, Attila admires “the ant bearing a sugar crystal… its tenacity, its superior strength.” I still have ant bait (will this book change that?) but I look at the odd ant on the window sill with more respect. I thought a lot about education during this book.  A lot of our unpleasant behaviour can be explained by ignorance and, worse still, not wanting to know, when it is easier to revert to ingrained habits, despite the gains: “All of this”.

“How do we become human except in the face of adversity?”

This rhetorical question in Happiness, felt like both a reconsideration of what happiness is, and a life-changing revelation. It felt familiar: it put into words and into the structure of a novel an idea I think about, such as when young people look at what work they might choose, saying, “No, that’s too hard. I want something easier – with lots of money…”  Yet, my experience of challenging work is that out of the unavoidable failures and set-backs comes something beyond value.  “Lots of money” may provide a little insurance (I can hear hollow laughter from Christchurch people), but can’t protect us from adversity.

I was led to consider whether we have became more resilient or more fearful, individually and as a community, since the earthquakes and the associated feeling that the whole world is crumbling about our ears. “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger” is a cliche dismissed at first in the book, but it appears again, and again, so that its truth is reinforced.  The book questions “whether the absence of adverse life events creates the ideal conditions for human development”. The effects felt by people since the earthquakes are sometimes described in the health system and the media as PTSD and this “disorder” is a major theme in this novel – as is the media’s response to events. At first I thought the author was being satirical about the modern health system and the general discourse in the media about health issues – and there is humour there – but the truth of it is sobering. Here, Dr Asare considers the burgeoning number of hospital departments:

Affective Disorders Service. Anxiety Service. Chronic Fatigue Service. Challenging Behaviour Service. Conduct Problems Service. Eating Disorders Service. Depersonalisation Disorder Service. Female Hormone Clinic. Mood Disorder Service. Obsessive Compulsive Disorder Unit. Party Drugs Clinic. Psychosexual Service. Self Harm Service.

Later in the chapter, a child observed having a tantrum is described as having “Disruptive mood dysregulation disorder” which seemed funny at the time – but is it true that the term is used by health professionals, and if not now, will it be in the future?

The book’s real force, for me, comes from the journey made by Dr Attila Asare, and the realisation he comes to about his field of study. PTSD is examined in war zones and as “Responses to Adverse Life Events” in civilian life – even “Witnessing Trauma through Social Media”.  “How do we become human except in the face of adversity?” is spoken by his character. Happiness becomes a paradox, he concludes.  Trauma causes suffering,  but not necessarily damage, but it does lead to change. And that change may be happiness – if not as we commonly imagine it.  I think Michael Leunig imagines it this way.  A memorable cartoon of his lists grief as one of the things which adds meaning to our lives.  That connects with me.  Grief never goes away.  We live with it.  It is part of what makes us human.  And here the intersecting thread of Jean and the foxes gives us a lesson in resilience. Attila reads Goodbye to All That (an echo of “All of this”?) by Robert Graves in which a soldier, sickened by the life at home, “the insanity of the insulated”, returns to the trenches. “Attila picked up the pen again and traced his thoughts on paper.  He wrote: ‘Resilience: Ability to maintain a state of equilibrium in face of adversity.’  He wrote the words: ‘Hope.  Humour.  Survival.  Adaptability.  Expectations.  Impermanence (acceptance of).’ These he wrote on one side of the paper. On the other side he wrote: ‘Denial.  Protectiveness.  Control.  Environment (creation of perfect).'”  We do dig a hole for ourselves, I concluded.

My teenage students often look for “easy” books to respond to, yet the students who choose challenging books (even inadvertently) respond best because their thinking has been expanded.  It could be that something in the book triggers a connection in them, that they are ready to hear what it has to say.  In adult book group discussions, I have become aware that our responses to the books we read depend on what is going on in our lives at the time or the degree to which the book agrees or disagrees with our beliefs and values, regardless of the author’s perceived intentions.  Reader Reception Theory posits that a reader brings meaning to a book – almost regardless of the writer.  I am more inclined to respect the writer’s craft in shaping our responses.  I had barely started this novel before our book group met last week and now that I have read it, captivated by its scope and crafting, I want to wind back time to give it its due, although everyone “loved it” and “would recommend it to anyone” and significant life events were triggered, particularly around grief. For me, it will become one of the memorable ones.