Happiness by Aminatta Forna review – in search of somewhere special

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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.

Attila Asare is a large, quiet, Ghanaian man in late middle age. He’s a psychiatrist whose career has taken him from war zone to war zone – “places lost in the moral darkness” – piecing together the shattered minds of survivors, cataloguing the damage. He has come from Accra, where his wife, Maryse, has recently died, to London. Attila is a man who feels his obligations keenly: there’s an academic conference to attend, a former lover devastated by Alzheimer’s to care for, a niece who appears to have disappeared into London’s sprawl to find. Throughout the novel there are italicised passages from the past that serve to deepen our appreciation of the novel’s present moment. We get snatches of Attila’s working life in Bosnia, Sierra Leone, Iraq, see him under extraordinary pressure, tested by the horrors of war and the bureaucratic nightmares of multinational relief work.

Jean Turane has left her husband, Ray, a car salesman, and her adult son, Luke, back in Massachusetts. She’s no longer young, but has come to London to seek a fresh start. She’s an academic with experience tracking coyotes and wolves in the US. In London, her subject is another member of the canidae family – the city’s urban foxes. She knows the vulpine inhabitants of her patch of south London intimately, greets them like old friends when they pass in the sodium-lit night, and has employed an ad-hoc posse of street sweepers and other night wanderers to help her track the foxes. She makes ends meet by designing rooftop gardens, bringing little patches of nature to life in the city’s heights.

A number of narrative MacGuffins underpin the plot of Happiness: the search for Attila’s niece and her son, Tano; the case of a post-traumatic stress disorder sufferer accused of arson; Attila’s attempts to find a flat for his former lover and her carer; the affection slowly building between Attila and Jean. The real joy of the novel, though, is in its portrait of London and its inhabitants. Forna’s voice is relentlessly compelling, her ability to summon atmosphere extraordinary, her sympathetic portrayal of traffic wardens, street performers, security guards, hotel doormen a thing of lasting beauty. It is as if the author has privileged access into multiple spheres of existence, learning the secret languages of each, conferring dignity and consequence on these figures who often pass unseen and unrecorded in our accounts of contemporary life.

Happiness might also very easily be viewed as part of the new nature writing movement. Nature is everywhere in the novel, from the foxes to the wolves and coyotes we read about in the flashbacks from Jean’s life, to the monk parakeets which, in 2014, when the novel is set, were in the process of being eradicated from London’s parks by Defra.

Happiness asks us to think about the interconnectedness of lives both human and animal, about what we choose to see and ignore as we move through the city, about the power of small acts of decency. In Attila and Jean, Forna has created two memorable characters; in her portrayal of London, she has achieved something more remarkable – a vision of the city so vivid and multilayered that it becomes the novel’s central figure. There is no single “somewhere”, Forna is telling us, but multiple, overlapping somewheres which all of us, wherever we’re from, and however long we remain there, may seek to call home.

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