-- Attila has arrived in London with two tasks: to deliver a keynote speech on trauma and to check up on the daughter of friends, his 'niece', Ama, who hasn't called home in a while. It soon emerges that she has been swept up in an immigration crackdown - and now her young son Tano is missing. When, by chance, Attila bumps into Jean again, she joins him in his search for Tano, mobilizing into action the network she has built up, mainly from the many West African immigrants working London's myriad streets, of volunteer fox-spotters: security guards, hotel doormen, traffic wardens. All unite to help and as the search continues, a deepening friendship between Attila and Jean unfolds. In this delicate yet powerful novel of loves lost and new, of past griefs and of the hidden side of a multicultural metropolis, Aminatta Forna asks us to consider the values of the society we live in, our co-existence with one another and all living creatures - and the true nature of happiness.
"He looked over the balustrade in both directions and forgot the cold. This view: the eye, the sinuous curve of the river, the Houses of Parliament lit with gold, and on the opposite side amid the dense constellations of lights, St Paul's and the behemoth towers of the city."
I've enjoyed Forna's work (especially The Memory of Love) so was really delighted this was an ARC. She creates characters that I want to know, as well as wanting to know what choices they will make. Here, Jean is working in London studying urban foxes, with the help of an unofficial network of workers in unsocial hours jobs who see more of the hidden London in the hours everyone else sleeps.
"She liked to watch those movies. The Day after Tomorrow, less so Mad Max and Waterworld. the Road, Planet of the Apes. Especially Planet of the Apes. The films were a form of penance for what humans had done, had you cheering for the apes and against the humans, not so much failing the Darwin test as screwing up the paper and lobbing it into the trash can."
She remembers her time working on a similar project in North America, tracking coyotes who had made towns their home. Attila is just visiting London, but he remembers studying in the city decades before, as he meets colleagues prior to a keynote speech on PTSD.
These are quite loose threads at the start of the book, and I put it down and got distracted by shiny new ones. When I picked it up, the book made more sense to me, perhaps because I had just read Jenny Erpenbeck. Forna isn't writing about refugees, but there are very similar themes here about why animals and people (have to) move, the choices that are not necessarily choices, and the need to keep asking the difficult questions, rather than generalising about experiences -Forna's acknowledgements include Resilience. In choosing a character who is an expert worker in warzones she also calls on her knowledge of Sierra Leone and the former Yugoslavia, as shown in her earlier writing.
I liked this book a great deal.
"He wondered if one day every feeling in the world would be identified, catalogued and marked for eradication. Was there no human experience that did not merit treatment now?"
This is a book i should have loved, but didnt, though I did admire the prose and the subjects. I even liked the characters, though my favorites were the doormen who came from various Africa countries. They added a compassionate element that I liked. I'm not sure why this missed the mark for me, whether it was my mood or that I found the plot meandering, but I found myself putting it down and not in a big hurry to pick it back up. I did like the last third more, which is why I rated this the way I did.
ARC from Netgalley.
Jean, a scientist from the US, is in London studying urban foxes. Attila, a psychiatrist from Ghana, is in London presenting a paper, checking up on his niece who has gone AWOL, and looking in on his former colleague who has early onset dementia, and for whom Attila carries power of attorney. The two main characters meet up while Jean is fox watching and join forces (together with a host of Africans working in London mainly in hotels and as security guards) to find Attila's great-nephew who runs away. (There is also a lot of stuff about wolves, parakeets, coyotes and foxes).
This was thought-provoking about (amongst other things) the effects of suffering and whether we in the West spend too much time trying to insulate ourselves from it. I liked the main characters and I think this novel will stay with me for a while.
Aminatta Forna’s novel has a title which could hardly fit better: “Happiness”. The whole story is about happiness and the question what you need in life to be happy and what happiness means after all. But maybe it is not happiness that we are looking for, but rather – as one of the characters puts it – hope. Without hope, there is not future, but you can have a whole lot of future without happiness.
Both Jean and Attila are most interesting characters in their very own ways. The author has done a great job in creating them and in opposing them, their view of the world and the way they approach life. They have some similarities, too, their principles and beliefs and the fight for what they believe is the right thing – it is not easily nowadays to find people with such strong convictions.
Yet, what I loved most about the novel were the really poetic ways of unobtrusively talking about life and love in a philosophical way. She captures the fragility of love and our existence in a way that is hard to excel. I really fell for the language in this novel and was waiting eagerly to find more of those passing comments that capture so much truth in this unassuming, shy way:
The reckless open their arms and topple into love, as do dreamers, who fly in their dreams without fear or danger. Those who know that all love must end in loss do not fall but rather cross slowly from the not knowing into the knowing.
It is a bittersweet story, full of love and loss, life and death. And certainly one of the most remarkable novels of this spring.