Happiness by Aminatta Forna


Aminatta Forna’s mother was Scottish and her father was from Sierra Leone. When she was young, her father worked in Sierra Leone as a physician. He was imprisoned and declared an Amnesty Prisoner of Conscience and later was hanged in 1975. According to Wikipedia, her memoir includes an investigation into the conspiracy surrounding his death. She has become a well-respected figure in the literary world and has written five novels, including Happiness, the most recent one.

This novel has several strands that are of interest separately. First, the wolf/coyote/urban fox strand. She begins with an engrossing story of an impressively smart and determined wolf hunter in New England in 1834. In the present time one of the main characters, Jean, is a scientific researcher who begins her work by tracking coyotes in suburban Massachusetts. She too works tirelessly, spending nights in a tent in order to stun a coyote using a dart so she can fit a tracking collar on it. She moved to London, having a grant to track urban foxes there. She spends nights prowling around and has made contact with a small army of doormen and others who help her spot the animals. Her work is denigrated when she is on a radio program about the presence of urban foxes as disease-carrying animals that attack pets and children. The most interesting point for me is that foxes live among us in the city and we don’t know it.

Attila is a giant of a man from Ghana who comes to London to give a keynote address to a conference in his field, psychiatry in service of victims of traumas, particularly wartime experiences. Soon after his arrival he is drawn into several dramas which demand his attention. First, the disappearance of his niece who is found in a hospital, but her 10-year-old son disappears onto the street. Their problems stem from being denounced to immigration authorities. Another grows from a visit he made to a college girlfriend, later a colleague who suffers from early-onset dementia. And finally, he agrees to make an evaluation of a woman diagnosed with PTSD resulting form the death of her husband. A few hours before his keynote speech he is moved to re-write it dramatically. The connection between the two characters comes when Attila uses the network that Jean has developed for fox-watching to search for the boy.

It is the subject of the rewritten speech that seems to be the heart of the book and to come from its author’s experience. It is clearly stated in a dinnertime chat with colleagues when Attila says,

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.

Though there are many interesting strands and particular bits to the book, the overall weave sometimes seemed a bit frayed. The characters had their moments, but were disconcertingly perfect.

Aminatta Forna, Happiness, Atlantic Monthly, 2018, 312 pages. Available at the UVa and public libraries and from Amazon.

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