Happiness: A Novel
- By Aminatta Forna
- Atlantic Monthly Press
- 368 pp.
- Reviewed by Ren Meinhart
- April 25, 2018
An elegant, thoughtful tale of immigration, trauma, and how loss shapes those who endure.
Happiness, the latest novel by award-winning author Aminatta Forna, sneaks up on you. It is deceptively low-key, devoid of dramatic peaks, and filled with effortless, relaxed prose that begs you to curl up with a blanket and read it on a cold, rainy day. Then, out of nowhere, you realize it’s so much more — an ambitious and moving story with real heft, written by an accomplished artist.
The plot revolves around two key figures. First, Atilla — a Ghanaian psychiatrist and trauma expert who’s visiting London to speak at a conference and check in on his niece, whom he hasn’t heard from recently. Second, Jean — an American biologist in London to study the habits of the urban foxes that roam the streets at night.
Fortunately for each of them — and for readers — the two literally collide on Waterloo Bridge as Jean pursues one of the foxes in her study. They part ways with barely a word but have a second chance encounter near the bridge a few nights later.
By this point, Atilla has learned that his niece has been swept up, wrongly, by immigration authorities, and he is searching for her son, who ran away from his foster home. Jean volunteers to help with the hunt and mobilizes the network of service workers — doormen, garbage collectors, traffic monitors — whom she assembled to track her foxes to instead look for the missing boy.
As the search continues, Atilla and Jean become increasingly valuable to one another. Their dual journeys expose several key issues society struggles with: how communities treat immigrants; how people coexist with animals and nature; how we respond to tragedy; and, finally, what it means to find happiness.
In conversations with Jean and through flashbacks, we learn that Atilla’s expertise in trauma, grief, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is hard-won; he has worked as a psychiatrist — and experienced loss — in some of the world’s most dire conflict zones.
While in London, Atilla agrees to serve as an expert witness for a widowed immigrant who claims PTSD drove her to commit arson. He asks poignant questions about humans’ response to catastrophe and considers the ways medical professionals approach those in pain and how that approach shapes their outcomes. What one doctor calls a symptom, another calls emotion.
We also learn how loss has shaped Jean in ways tangible and relatable. She is managing the loss of her marriage, a strained relationship with her adult son, and professional heartbreak. While none of these burdens is exceptional or rare, Forna’s depiction of them is admirable. Jean is circumspect and careful in their aftermath, but her resilience and generosity toward Atilla dominate.
As compared to the utter grace with which the author approaches these themes, her treatment of the novel’s immigration thread is less subtle. She uses allegory to deliver an important message, but the language in these passages is raw and, in some cases, less than artful. Nevertheless, her excoriation of those who treat immigrants with derision is welcome given the debates that now rage in Europe and the United States.
Not only does Forna explore this issue in the treatment of Atilla’s niece, but she also uses the animals that Jean studies as allegory for the immigrant experience. We learn that one of Jean’s earlier projects involved tracking coyotes that had migrated to New England; when one attacked a deer in a populated area, the town turned on the coyote population, with a local hunter even incentivizing the killing of the wild dogs.
During Jean’s study in London, a child is attacked by a fox, and the mayor and scores of others call for the extermination of the foxes with fear-mongering language that is painfully familiar. Jean’s call for a better understanding of why the animals migrated to London in the first place and a humane approach to coexistence is drowned out.
The flashback vignettes that feel like detours at the outset of the novel cascade gracefully into critical understandings of the characters and the themes of the book, making Happiness a story that is both hard to put down and impossible to forget.
Ren Meinhart is a foreign-policy analyst with the federal government. She lives in Alexandria, VA, with her dog, Huckleberry, and many, many piles of books. See what she’s reading on Instagram at @writinren.