Thoughts on The Book of Atlantis Black

What this book is billed as: a punk-rock-true-crime memoir.

What this book actually is: an attempt by the author to process her grief after losing her charismatic, mentally ill, drug-addicted, punk-rock sister to overdose and/or suicide and/or the failure of the American criminal justice and public health systems to intervene and provide treatment for an unwell and suffering woman.

This book is a mess, and I actually mean that in a very good way. Bonner is, understandably, a mess! She’s the sole survivor of an immediate family riddled with mental illness, and she does not emerge unscathed. In addition to her sister’s death, she loses her abusive father to cancer and her mother to suicide.

Here is what I think this book gets right:

  1. It is fairly unsentimental. I appreciate that. Bonner doesn’t try to sugarcoat anything, and she doesn’t try to convince you that everyone or anyone, really, is redeemable. She even questions the relevance of redeem-ability. At the end of the day, everyone has value- at their best and at their worst. We can love our family and simultaneously hate the things they do.
  2. It doesn’t answer all of the questions. That’s life, and to pretend otherwise wouldn’t be giving her readers enough credit. No neat bows here.
  3. It is a realistic depiction of what it’s like to be a member of a dysfunctional family drowning in mental illness. It asks how much responsibility do we have to our families vs. how much responsibility do we have to protect ourselves? What is the appropriate balance of burden to bear?
  4. It is a very personal look at the innermost thoughts of a woman coming to terms with her loss and grief- a very intense personal and human process that Bonner is allowing us to bear witness to.

Here is what didn’t quite work for me:
The only thing that left me a little cold? I didn’t really feel like I got to know Atlantis. We are told she is charismatic, but other than a few snippets of what I thought was very compelling songwriting, most of what we see of Atlantis are paranoid epistolary snippets.

This was a very cathartic read for me, and I hope it was cathartic for Bonner to write..

I received a copy of this book from Tin House in exchange for my honest opinions.

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