Happiness — book review

Happiness, by Aminatta Forna

This is the story of two people who meet on a bridge crossing the Thames in London. He is from Ghana, a speaker at a psychology conference. She’s an American biologist making a study of urban foxes.

Different disciplines, different backgrounds and different food preferences, but in everything that matters to the heart and soul, these two hum the same tune. Rather beautifully, as the reader can see, but it takes them a while to be aware of this, which of course is the achingly poignant crux of any great love story.

And this is a love story, though a slow burning one that branches out and back to previous loves, and encompasses a lot else besides.

Attila (surely a hard name with which to saddle your son) is complex and heavy with life. His area of expertise is psychological damage in disaster zones. He is due to present a paper about trauma and PTSD in all its varied manifestations. But he is also looking for a boy lost on the streets, caring for a love lost to dementia and advising on a sanity lost to previous harm. And he has lost his wife, in a circumstance for which he cannot forgive himself.

Jean is drawn to the charismatic presence of Attila and she feels his loneliness, (and she has losses of her own, estranged from her ex and her adult son), but he’s deep and complicated and she feels on the periphery even as she is pulled in. Her passion is for wild animals in an urban environment, and when she’s not loping around the back streets and green patches along the South Bank looking for foxes she creates wild spaces on roof tops. We have flashbacks to her previous surveys of coyotes, but I found these a bit distracting — I would rather have stayed with her in London, with Jean challenging the prevailing opinion that foxes are dirty and dangerous and should be culled. Jean is an advocate of co-existence, and this is deeply appealing for a worldly man like Attila.

They team up, Jean and Attila, in the search for the boy. Both have contacts and friendships in the immigrant community on the streets: hotel workers and sweepers and a man who paints himself silver and, motionless, watches the people pass. Jean, with her knowledge of the behaviour of vulnerable young animals, sets up a search grid.

Aminatta Forna’s writing is a joy. Here’s a London I recognise well, somewhere in a backstreet along the river: “Attila walked with Komba to the big roundabout. A blind man tapped his way along the pavement. A church door stood open showing rows of empty pews, a soup kitchen in the church courtyard advertised today’s minestrone. Outside the bars hundreds congregated despite the cold, holding on to pints of beer as though they were the anchors that prevented them being swept away by the passing throng.”

And Happiness? I wondered about the title. Where in all this loss and hardship do we find happiness?

But of course it is there. Happiness is snatched, like it is for everyone, in small bites and chunks. It’s in Jean standing spellbound watching a fox, the house-bound woman’s hand on the bark of a tree. It’s in Attila’s dancing when the music moves him, the smile on the face of demented Rosie when some memory clicks. Happiness is different to pleasure or contentment. It’s deep, unpredictable, and often layered in nostalgia.

“It was paradoxical, but nevertheless true that in his life and in his career Attila had often observed joy amongst those who had suffered most: it was what life gave in exchange for the pain.”

There is an extraordinary piece at the end, where Attila switches his conference speech. Instead of the prevailing wisdom, he suggests trauma and damage and suffering do not necessarily follow in the sequence they (his listeners) have been trained to believe.

“There is nothing inevitable about the impact of trauma, except perhaps the way the victim is going to be treated by professionals like us, who will then ascribe every subsequent difficulty in their lives to what has happened to them in the past. We don’t blame victims any longer, instead we condemn them. We treat them like damaged goods and in so doing we compound the pain of whatever wound has been inflicted and we encourage everyone around them to do the same.”

This fired off my thinking in all sorts of directions (starting with the difficult definition of “shock” in PTSD). Attila describes regeneration after a fire (which got me thinking of a post-covid world); an audience watching suffering from a safe distance (thinking about gratuitous violence in films); and the transformation of emotional vulnerability to huge emotional strength (and don’t we admire stories of strength through adversity?).

Happiness could be a terrific book for a group discussion, but be careful with your audience, you may open personal histories of trauma for which a book club is not equipped. Or it could be terrifically cathartic. All I can say is that it is written in a positive voice and the ending is affirmative. The underlying theme of this book is resilience. It seems very a very pertinent read in 2020.

Author: cristinasandersblog

Novelist, trail runner, book reviewer and blogger.

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