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13 May 2018updated 09 Jun 2021 10:25am

Aminatta Forna’s latest novel Happiness asks: is suffering necessary to experience joy?

Forna has a magpie’s eye for interesting facts and observations.

By Alice O'Keeffe

An interviewer from the Daily Telegraph once described Aminatta Forna’s writing as “manly” – by which he meant both that she writes male characters convincingly, and also that she addresses ambitious themes (“womanly” writing presumably pertaining to gossip and shopping). Forna has often focused in her novels on conflict and suffering, the impact of war and post-traumatic stress. As her acclaimed memoir The Devil that Danced on the Water made clear, this is based on her own experience: her father, a political dissident, was detained and killed when she was a child in Sierra Leone.

Her new book, Happiness, continues to work this furrow. The novel is set across London, New England, Bosnia, Sierra Leone and Iraq, and it addresses two big, ambitious questions: does happiness equal a lack of suffering – or is suffering in fact necessary in order to experience joy? And why does humanity have such a dysfunctional relationship with the natural world?

The protagonist, Attila, is a middle-aged Ghanaian psychiatrist visiting London in order to address a conference on trauma. He is a smart and cosmopolitan man, a lover of food and dancing, but he has also witnessed some of the darkest moments in recent history, having worked in war zones all over the world. He has come to the conclusion that the entire language and focus of psychiatry – with its conception of trauma as damaging – is based upon the mistaken Western idea that a trauma-free life is “normal”. He has also recently lost his wife Maryse, so the question of whether trauma can be overcome is now personal.

Going across Waterloo Bridge the night of his arrival, Attila literally runs into Jean, an American divorcee who has left her teenage son behind and adopted a solitary existence in London. She has dedicated her life to the study of urban wildlife: coyotes in New England, and now London’s urban fox population. When the two meet again, they are drawn together by the disappearance of Attila’s young nephew Tano following an immigration raid. Together they recruit an assortment of marginalised Londoners – African traffic wardens, a care home worker – to help with the search.

Forna’s writing exudes an excitable kind of curiosity – about people, about the world. She has a magpie eye for interesting facts and observations, and there are countless enjoyable digressions on subjects as diverse as the history of Nunhead Cemetery, the mating habits of the coyote, the baffled response of an African to a vegan restaurant, and the perils of living in a wealthy western society (“A society went numb,” Attila notes pointedly, “as often from being battered by fate as from never being touched”). She has a big heart and impressive breadth, writing with equal acuity and empathy about women and men, Americans and Africans, professors and traffic wardens. Attila, in particular, is a complex and unusual character, a person who takes on the suffering of others, and yet never loses sight of the joyful things in life. He is a truly global citizen, and a much-needed antidote to parochialism and small mindedness.

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As a whole, however, there is just too much going on in Happiness, and not enough plot to hold it all together. The search for Tano feels cursory, little more than a device for bringing a motley collection of characters into contact, and when it runs its course Forna is reduced to getting them to bump repeatedly into each other in the street. There are further subsidiary plots, one about a former lover of Attila’s who is descending into dementia, another about a traumatised woman accused of arson. None of these are sustained or integrated well enough into the narrative of Attila and Jean, which is set up as a love story, but never satisfactorily resolved.

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While Forna’s ambition is admirable, I wished she had reined it in just a little. Either one of her big questions would be enough to sustain a novel. The storylines about Jean’s foxes and Attila’s trauma work do not illuminate one another, but rather vie for the reader’s attention. There is so much to enjoy in this book that it’s a shame my feeling was ultimately not happiness, but frustration. 

Aminatta Forna
Bloomsbury, 320pp, £16.99

This article appears in the 10 May 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Israel vs Iran