Review of Happiness by Aminatta Forna

I knew nothing about this author or novel but, true to its title, it was a happy surprise.  This is a thoughtful and thought-provoking story of two adults who meet in London.  Attila is a trauma expert from Ghana who arrives in London for a conference and to check up on a niece who hasn’t been heard from. Jean is a biologist who is studying the behavior of foxes in urban settings.  Attila is a widow; Jean is divorced.  The two meet on a bridge one night and their lives become intertwined.

This is a slow-moving, character-focused novel about two people who are lonely but who are also really driven by their areas of expertise.  It was nice to read a book about characters who are so passionate about their work.  Both are outsiders in their own way, but they are also mature, confident adults with strong self-identities who happen to connect. Attila and Jean are both people I would like to know (and that’s not something I say about most books).

“You had to wonder what was it in humans that made them crave contact with wild animals, when the animals steadfastly resisted the same.  People paid money to swim with dolphins, they went on safari, took their children to petting zoos… Where did it come from, the yearning?  Something missing in human society or some other more basic drive towards the remnant of what was once wild, not in the animal, but in us.” Happiness by Aminatta Forna.

In addition to its focus on animals, I loved the diversity of the book’s characters.  As Jean studies her foxes and Attila looks for his niece and her son, they get to know different people living and working in London, from doormen at hotels to street performers.  The result is a rich tapestry of characters who live and work in the city, most of them from other parts of the world.  For me, like so many things lately, it shines a light on the importance of seeing and understanding the diverse cultures around us.

I also liked that this book was a mix of what I’ll call big issues and small issues.  As a psychologist who specializes in trauma, Attila has traveled to war zones and studied the effects of violence (such as captivity and torture) on individuals.  Jean has to deal with people who want to eradicate foxes, coyotes, even parakeets.  There’s terrorism, a missing child, and a close friend with Alzheimer’s.  But at the same time, this is a book about small moments, like Jean trying to stay close with her college-age son in the aftermath of her divorce.  Like the small, and not-so-small, matter of finding a new friend.

“There is a time one sees a new love, a person who might perhaps become a new love, when the possibility of love has been spoken for the first time, but the possibility of retreat still exists, when one or other might still step away from the abyss.  In the hours apart a space opens up between the could-be lovers.  A false word or misstep and all might yet be undone.  Beneath the possibility of joy lies the fear of shame.” Happiness by Aminatta Forna.

This is a book that ponders what it means to be happy, to connect with the world around you — with people who are different, and with nature.  Forna’s writing is straightforward but powerful, simple and emotional at the same time.  She draws together many different events, giving them meaning in a way that doesn’t hit you over the head but makes you think.  I was sorry to see this book end.

Note: I received a complimentary copy of this book from NetGalley and publisher Grove Atlantic.  The book was published May 6.  

3 Responses to “Review of Happiness by Aminatta Forna”

  1. Lola

    I LOVED this book – I loved the focus on a more mature set of characters and it is so well written!

    Reply
  2. Katie Wilkins (@DoingDewey)

    I’d never heard of this book, but it seems to have a lot to recommend it. I’d definitely enjoy reading about more characters who are passionate about their work and the big and small life issues this covers sound like they’d make for characters who felt very real.

    Reply

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