I’m a psychiatrist, and what is normal and how we define normality are questions that the more one works in the field, the more one wonders about. Absence of a diagnosable mental illness is not the same as what society might think as “normal behaviour”. And each individual’s opinion on the matter is even more varied. Culture shock, for instance, results from differences in what is accepted behaviour in countries far apart (although not necessarily as far as we might think). Being transplanted into a culture or a situation brand new for us might make us question if our version of normal is the correct one. Even what might be normal for our neighbours we might consider utterly bizarre.
The author of this novel explores the reactions to a character, Charles, who has a psychiatric condition (a mental disorder unspecified in the book), by a number of people, including relatives (his brother and sister-in-law), close friends and acquaintances, complete strangers and previous employers. Charles’s diagnosis is left intentionally vague (we can speculate, based on the description of his behaviours, but that is not the point of the story. Charles’s behaviour is peculiar and bizarre at times, but he does not appear to be a danger to others and most of the time remains capable of making his own decisions and explaining himself, although not always) probably to avoid the temptation of turning the book into an apologia or a treatise to defend the sufferers of a particular illness or disorder. It is not about one set of symptoms or even one character, but it reflects back to us some of the standard reactions to people who might be affected by such a disorder. Are they really unable to do a day’s work, or is it all an excuse? Are they telling the truth or are they making up stories to get attention? Why should they be treated differently and given special privileges when they aren’t pulling their weight? Are they just exploiting the system? Should they just be locked up?
The novel is written in the third person, at times by an omniscient narrator that shares the internal thoughts of some of the many characters, at times the third person narrator simply shares what is happening, without taking any specific point of view, but rather that of an objective observer. That contrast allows us to get a better understanding of the psychological make-up and reasons behind some of the characters’ reactions, and we can compare those reactions to the facts.
Although we never get to see things from Charles’s perspective, we hear the stories of his friends (some closer than other) who are gathered, at the beginning of the book, to help him and accompany him on the occasion of his mother’s funeral. There are a number of works of fiction where a funeral brings people together to discuss the deceased, and in the process discover the true selves of those in attendance, although here, there is less discussion of Rose, the mother, and more of Charles. And also of the rest of the guests. We get to learn about them, their relationships (or lack of them), their sexuality, their weaknesses, their beliefs and interests, mostly through their conversations. All the characters have interesting backgrounds, lives and stories, and we become as curious about them as they are about each other. And we want to learn more. There is plenty of dialogue and not much description or narration. It struck me that this book would make a great play with many juicy parts for talented actors and actresses.
When we get to know both his friends and those who aren’t that close to Charles, we come to understand that all of them (and by extension, also us) have their own conditions, and we shouldn’t be so quick to judge. Even the most enlightened of us can have prejudices and misjudge others if we are not open and refuse to take them on their own terms.
Conditions has a fascinating array of characters and is a book that will make all readers think. I believe there is or will be a second part that will follow some of the characters’ stories. I’m looking forward to it. This is the second book I’ve read by this writer and I’m happy that he has so many books available and of varied styles and genres. I’ll keep reading him, enjoying his stories and watching his career.