Another book that I heard about in a podcast well enough in advance of publication to be the first to crack the cover of the library’s copy when it came in. I loved the cover, with its wildlife on the fringe of human habitation. It’s just the sort of story I’m drawn to: An American divorcee who goes to London to study the habits of urban foxes (quirky character, perhaps on the fringe herself, like the foxes she studies). Jean met Attila, a Ghanaian psychiatrist who traveled the world of war torn countries, to treat victims of PTSD. They met the first time when Jean literally ran into him on the Waterloo Bridge. Another chance meeting brought them together again, when they established a tenuous friendship. There is a lot going on in this novel. Both characters, Jean and Attila, are suffering from their own brand of loneliness and loss, but function perfectly well by throwing themselves into their work. Jean’s story raises the issue of how humankind and nature can share the same space and people can peacefully cohabit with the fauna that live in cities. (Perhaps the key to the success of that lies in the word “humankind.”) Attila’s passages are more complex as he contemplated the keynote address he came to London to deliver to colleagues in the mental health profession. He had come to believe that the current thinking on PTSD could be wrong. He no longer believed that trauma causes suffering which exclusively causes damage to the individual. Instead, he now believes that yes, trauma causes suffering, but suffering and damage are not the same thing. What we don’t know is whether the absence of adverse life events creates the ideal conditions for human development. We just assume that trauma causes damage.
Attila was a minor character in one of Forna’s earlier books (I have not read it) and in the years since, she had not let go of him, thinking that one day she might write a book where he was a more central character. Perhaps that is why Attila was a character I loved. Yes, he was a guarded person, still grieving his dead wife. But he also experienced what looked like happiness to me. He loved all kinds of music. When I first met him, he was listening to a tango by a Portuguese composer, and dancing, by himself, in his hotel room. He was very specific in his love of food, Brazilian cuisine, not Cuban. (He dined at a Latin American restaurant on Old Kent Rd., which unfortuantely has closed, permanently.) He attended a conference of psychiatrists in Cuba where the focus was the rising suicide rate of young men in industrialized countries. Despite the travel restrictions imposed on visitors, he hired a car and traveled across the country. He stopped in a small town in the center of the country on a Sunday night, and observed dancing. He did not know the steps, so he watched for a while, and discerned that a woman’s willingness to accept a dance with a partner was indicated by the way she held her fan. A woman in her late sixties accepted the hand of a young man. Attila watched how they performed the steps, that he later learned were to a slow rumba. Several songs later, when the music to another rumba began to play, he approached the same woman who had danced with the young man, and she accepted. “In the years to come, Attila thought from time to time about that Cuban town. It seemed to him like a place where happiness might exist.”
Finally, the writing is contemplative, thoughtful, beautifully wrought. In one passage, Attila had an encounter with a woman. When she left his hotel room, he selected some music and thought that he would dance, but failed. “Instead he turned up the music until it smothered the sound of the dead woman weeping in his heart.
THE BEAUTY: Once in Sri Lanka, even though Attila did not care to swim, he was persuaded to accompany his colleagues to the beach. When his buddies went into the water Attila followed the footprints of a man and a dog along the shore. The sky was full of frigate birds, which could not land on water because they didn’t have waterproof feathers. He listened through his headphones to a nuevo tango by Argentine-born composer Astor Piazzolla. He liked the way the music went straight to his heels. He took off his shoes and carried them in one hand as he walked away from his colleagues. “He did not see the frigate bird dive for the scrap of fish thrown by the fisherman, nor did he see his colleagues cease their horseplay, treading water the better to watch him as he danced alone on the wet sand.”
THE FOOD: Once, when Attila returned home from a mission, he had gone to the bedroom he shared with his wife to wash his hands before dinner. He got the sense upon entering the room, that it had been undisturbed for some time in an abandoned house. His evening shoes were on the floor beneath the stand which held the jacket he had worn the day before his departure. His wife’s gown hung on the chair in front of her dressing table. He realized that the room was exactly as it had been at the moment when he had turned at the door with his suitcase in hand, to check if he had forgotten anything. Attila realized that Maryse had not slept in their bedroom those days he had been away. She had slept on a daybed in her office at the hospital where she worked. The meal Attila had gone to the bedroom to wash up for was chicken yassa.
½ C white wine vinegar
3 limes, zested, juiced
1 1- inch piece ginger, thinly sliced
1 scotch bonnet pepper, slit
1 onion, peeled, sliced
2 tsp black peppercorns, crushed0
4 cloves garlic, peeled, thinly sliced
2 tsp Kosher salt
¼ cup olive oil
4 chicken leg quarters
Chicken and Onions
2 T olive oil
3 medium onions, peeled, thinly sliced
3 sprigs thyme
1 T ginger, peeled, minced*
1 tsp ground allspice
½ tsp cayenne pepper
2 C chicken stock
⅔ C pitted green olives,sliced
white rice, cooked, to serve
parsley, chopped, to garnish
For the marinade:
In a large zip top bag add the vinegar, lime zest and juice, ginger, scotch bonnet, onion, peppercorns, garlic and olive oil. Season with salt and pepper, add the chicken legs and allow to marinate for 4-5 hours in the refrigerator. (Marinate the chicken up to 12 hours in advance.) When ready to sear, remove from the refrigerator 30 minutes prior to cooking to come to room temperature.
For the chicken and onions:
In a large Dutch oven, add the olive oil and heat over medium-high heat. Remove the chicken from the marinade, discarding the marinade. Season with additional salt and pepper and add to the Durch oven skin side down. Sear until golden brown, about 4 minutes, flip and allow to sear on the other side another 4 minutes. Remove to a plate. Add the onions and cook, over medium heat, until caramelized, about 25 minutes. Once caramelized, add the thyme sprigs, ginger, allspice and cayenne and cook another minute. Season with the salt and pepper.
Add the stock, scraping the browned bits up from the bottom of the pan, and bring to a simmer. Add the chicken back to the pot, the stock should come halfway up the chicken, cover and continue to simmer for 35-40 minutes until the chicken is tender and cooked through, or a meat thermometer registers 165º. Stir in the olives during the last 5 minutes of cooking. Serve the chicken and onions over white rice. Garnish with parsley.
I forgot to take the picture when it was artfully arranged on the plate.