Happiness by Aminatta Forna

This novel appeals to me on so many levels, yet I would really struggle to explain exactly why.  It’s a visceral connection rather than a logical one.  Trying to write a review that might do it any justice has been difficult, and I’m not sure that I’ve succeeded.  If you read the novel, I’d love to hear/read your views of it.  Here’s my review:

‘At that time of the day Waterloo Bridge is busy with shoppers and weekend workers who make their way on foot across the bridge to Waterloo Station.’

On that day and at that time, a fox makes its way across Waterloo Bridge. Among those distracted by the sight are Jean, an American studying the habits of urban foxes, and Attila, a Ghanaian psychiatrist in London to deliver a keynote speech at a conference. This chance encounter defines a starting point for a series of interactions between Jean and Attila which will take the reader on a journey through lives and places. From within the anonymity of London, our attention is drawn to these two people, and then beyond them.

Attila has two objectives in London. The first is to deliver a keynote speech on trauma, the second is to contact Ama Fremah, the daughter of friends who has not called home for a while. Attila discovers that Ama has been caught in an immigration crackdown. While Attila locates Ama quite quickly, her young son Tano is missing.

Attila runs into Jean again, by chance, while trying to find Tano. Jean mobilises the network of men she uses as volunteer fox spotters. These men, with their broader contacts among the people who work jobs on the London streets, band together to help. At the same time as the search for Tano continues, a situation involving a friend leads Attila to take on a consulting case. Jean’s life is changed by her contact with Attila and her involvement in his world. At the same time, she is caught up in a debate about urban foxes, about fears and the (oh so) human desire for control.

As the story unfolds, as both the lives of Jean and Attila become more complicated because of their interactions, both are drawn to question things that they had accepted in the past. Attila revisits the keynote speech he had prepared on trauma.

‘Attila picked up the pen again and traced his thoughts on paper.’

And then:

‘He sat back and reread the words. At the top of the paper he wrote: ‘HAPPINESS’ and underlined it with two dark strokes, and underneath he wrote the words: ‘THE PARADOX’.’

There’s so much to think about and to enjoy about this novel. I’m finding it impossible to assemble the right words to do justice to Ms Forna’s multi-layered story about belonging, about chance encounters changing lives and about assumptions of happiness. I loved the way the characters were developed. Each of the links in the novel made sense, seemed natural rather than contrived. I finished the novel content. I’m still thinking about ‘Happiness’.

Note: My thanks to Grove Atlantic and NetGalley for providing me with a free electronic copy of this book for review purposes.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith

RANALD MACDONALD. Testing times for the ABC with a ‘competitive, neutrality enquiry’. | John Menadue – Pearls and Irritations

One of our most trusted institutions is under real threat- and, like Humpty Dumpty, once broken may never be able to be put together again.  

Source: RANALD MACDONALD. Testing times for the ABC with a ‘competitive, neutrality enquiry’. | John Menadue – Pearls and Irritations