Aminatta Forna: Happiness




I’ll be forever grateful to the friend of an aquaintance who recommended Happiness to her, and to that acquaintance for recommending it to me. It’s sweeping in its interests and understanding, perpetually curious about human nature and about the lives of other creatures, emotionally sane and sympathetic. 

Jean the American and Attila the Ghanaian are both loners, Jean by nature and Attila by his choice of career. He’s a psychiatrist who works for the WHO in war zones, part of the “clean-up crew” that comes through after the slaughter and genocide. He has a home but he’s rarely there.  He wasn’t there when his wife died of an aneurysm, alone.  Jean’s marriage failed because her husband felt she cared more about her work as an animal biologist than she did about him. It’s true.  She’s never happier than in long periods alone in the wild, tracking and observing animals.

In London studying urban foxes she meets Attila by accident and gets involved in a search for his young nephew who has gone missing. Jean has a volunteer fox-spotting army of street-sweepers, cab-drivers and hotel doormen, mostly West African immigrants or refugees, some of them from the places Attila works in, and mobilises them to find 10-year-old Tano. These people living on the edge are a community full of heart and hope, and finding Tano is as important to them as it is to Jean and Attila.  Attila is a specialist in post-traumatic stress disorder; through his connection with these traumatised people he begins to see things differently.  In the words of Boris Cyrulnik, whose writings on resilience influenced Aminatta Forna, “Resilience is a mesh, not a substance. We are forced to knit ourselves, using the people and things we meet in our emotional and social environments.”

If you love London you’ll love this book too. This is the London of the fox, that resilient creature that adapts itself to all circumstances. It’s the London of the homeless person, the all-night worker, a London full of life only the night-people know, a living organism, surviving and constantly transforming itself. 

Highly recommended.

9 thoughts on “Aminatta Forna: Happiness

  1. For some reason, I often get author mixed up with Kamila Shamsie, possibly because they both appeared on literary prize shortlists around the same time. Anyway, I think I’ve got them straight in my mind now. The portrait of London definitely appeals, especially as ‘physical’ trips to the capital feel a bit superfluous right now…

  2. This author was one of those featured in a recent BBC documentary film about African and other black authors writing in Engliah (‘Africa Turns the Page: The Novels That Shaped a Continent’) and this seems as good a place for me to start as any, though I must get round to reviewing the selection of Chinua Achebe essays I read a few months ago.

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