Happiness: A Novel

by Aminatta Forna

Hardcover, 2018

Call number





Atlantic Monthly Press (2018), 368 pages


"ThroughoutHappiness, Forna stops in our tracks . . . Reminiscent at times of Michael Ondaatje's novelAnil's Ghost . . .Happiness is a meditation on grand themes: Love and death, man and nature, cruelty and mercy. But Forna folds this weighty matter into her buoyant creation with a sublimely delicate touch."--Washington Post London. A fox makes its way across Waterloo Bridge. The distraction causes two pedestrians to collide--Jean, an American studying the habits of urban foxes, and Attila, a Ghanaian psychiatrist there to deliver a keynote speech. From this chance encounter, Aminatta Forna's unerring powers of observation show how in the midst of the rush of a great city lie numerous moments of connection. Attila has arrived in London with two tasks: to deliver a keynote speech on trauma, as he has done many times before; and to contact the daughter of friends, his "niece" who hasn't called home in a while. Ama has been swept up in an immigration crackdown, and now her young son Tano is missing. When, by chance, Attila runs into Jean again, she mobilizes the network of rubbish men she uses as volunteer fox spotters. Security guards, hotel doormen, traffic wardens--mainly West African immigrants who work the myriad streets of London--come together to help. As the search for Tano continues, a deepening friendship between Attila and Jean unfolds. Meanwhile a consulting case causes Attila to question the impact of his own ideas on trauma, the values of the society he finds himself in, and a grief of his own. In this delicate tale of love and loss, of cruelty and kindness, Forna asks us to consider the interconnectedness of lives, our co-existence with one another and all living creatures, and the true nature of happiness.… (more)

Media reviews

At its weakest, “Happiness” devolves into a stern lecture, delivered through Attila, arguing that our avoidance of discomfort has become a pathology, one that supports an ever-expanding therapeutic industry. As Attila excoriates our childish pursuit of wrinkle-free lives, Forna even gives him a phrase to describe it: “prelapsarian innocence.” In opposition, Forna offers the examples of certain resilient survivors of war zones and of Jean’s foxes, who outwit the humans intent on annihilating them. Yet I found this dichotomy unconvincing. After all, we lack the resources to identify and treat most psychological victims of war; for the most part, they simply vanish into obscurity. Yet Forna’s finely structured novel powerfully succeeds on a more intimate scale as its humane characters try to navigate scorching everyday cruelties. Pausing to watch immigrant jugglers, Jean finds a bag hidden in the bushes containing worn sneakers and a school exercise book: “Something about it, this pitiful collection of belongings, the ambitions encompassed by the study notes in the exercise book, the men performing for an uninterested public; watching them brought Jean a feeling of pity and strange protectiveness.” Like Jean, we can only guess at the horrors these jugglers have fled, only imagine the terrors of their journey and how much they have endured to come here, to the West, to perform for us, the “uninterested public.”
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In his book about the rise of populist politics, The Road to Somewhere, the rightwing thinker and former Prospect editor David Goodhart diagnosed the deep divide that has emerged in Britain between “somewheres” and “anywheres”. Somewheres feel a deep connection to the (often rural) place in which they live, are socially conservative and less well educated. Anywheres are metropolitan liberals, equally at home in Manhattan or Mumbai, university-educated and rootless. Theresa May was describing Anywheres when she said: “If you believe you are a citizen of the world then you are a citizen of nowhere.” Aminatta Forna’s fourth novel, Happiness, is the story of two Anywheres, Attila and Jean, and offers a profound and convincing riposte to the narrow-mindedness of Goodhart’s thesis. This is a novel about migration, about the long shadows cast by episodes of historical violence, about the many overlapping and interconnected somewheres created by people on the margins, those who fall outside what Goodhart – and many others – mean when they say British society.
In these few scenes, Forna sets her key characters in motion, connecting them first by chance and ultimately by love. The novel’s title is “Happiness,” after all. But Forna is too subtle and knowing a writer to create a straightforward, let alone inspirational, narrative. The action here may revolve around Attila’s search in London for a relative’s runaway child — a pleasingly simple mystery — but the novel has a wider orbit. Traveling elliptically between past and present, it crosses continents and weaves together lives that intersect years later in London over the course of just 10 days. Each intermittent episode seems to materialize as memories do, with sharp and fragile immediacy.

User reviews

LibraryThing member charl08
I received an ARC of this book from Netgalley.

"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?"
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LibraryThing member albertgoldfain
Immersive. Covers a lot of ground using a few very memorable characters. This novel really does end up saying something unique about the nature of happiness, trauma, and the wilderness.
LibraryThing member miss.mesmerized
They meet by accident, but somehow they have known each other forever. Attila, a Ghanaian psychiatrist, has come to London to give a speech at a conference. He is a specialist in post-traumatic stress and has seen the worst the world has to offer. But this is not the only thing he has to do there. First of all, he has to find the daughter of some of his friends who hasn’t called for a couple of days and who, together with her son, seems to be missing. Another thing task waiting for him is to visit Rosie, his former colleague and lover. She is in a home, not aware of the world anymore, waiting for her life to come to an end. While Attila is occupied with the humans around him, the American biologist Jean cares a lot more for the animals. Especially foxes around town. She is fighting a hopeless battle against those who want to kill them all and do not understand that this is not how things work with wild animals.

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.
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LibraryThing member carole888fort
Thank you to Grove Atlantic, Atlantic Monthly Press and NetGalley for an advance e-copy of Happiness by Aminatta Forna in exchange for an honest review. This is the story of Jean, an American woman studying London's urban population of foxes and Attila, a psychiatrist from Ghana and an expert in the field of PTSD, who is in London to deliver a speech on trauma. The two accidentally meet on Waterloo Bridge and their emotional adventures in London are at the center of this novel. Happiness is a jewel of a book. It is lyrical and captivates the reader, even with the most minute of details. It is an elegant read and I look forward to reading more books by Aminatta Forna.… (more)
LibraryThing member PennyMck
Happiness is about the unseen residents of our cities - the foxes, coyotes, and parakeets, but also the street sweepers, the doormen, the dishwashers. Do we welcome these immigrants to our cities or reject them? Happiness is about pain and trauma, hope and resilience and community. Highly recommended.
LibraryThing member Beamis12
A Quiet and contemplative novel which begins with a chance meeting on the Waterloo bridge brings together two people, both emotionally wounded. Two people, Jean a woman who studies animals in urban areas and Attila, who is an expert in PTSD in refugees. An unusual friendship will develop between the two, and maybe a hope for more. Although their studies differ in theory, in essence they are both studying the behavior of those, whether animal or human, who were forced out of their natural environment. Trying to adapt to a new environment, often facing hostility.

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.
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LibraryThing member DebbieMcCauley
It's not often I cannot be bothered finishing a book, but by page 187 I realised that I was bored and just didn't care about the characters enough to invest any more of my time in them. Needed a good editor to cut the book down by a third. Sorry.
LibraryThing member kakadoo202
I really wanted to like it but hd to give up half way through
LibraryThing member pgchuis
Given that my interest in parakeets, coyotes and urban foxes is more or less nil, it is proof of the excellence of this novel that I not only finished it, but enjoyed it very much.

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.
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