A Novelby Aminatta Forna
A delicate tale of love and loss, of cruelty and kindness, from Aminatta Forna.
London. A fox makes its way across Waterloo Bridge. The distraction causes two pedestrians to collide—Jean, an American studying the habits of urban foxes, and Attila, a Ghanaian psychiatrist there to deliver a keynote speech. From this chance encounter, Aminatta Forna’s unerring powers of observation show how in the midst of the rush of a great city lie numerous moments of connection.
Attila has arrived in London with two tasks: to deliver a keynote speech on trauma, as he has done many times before; and to contact the daughter of friends, his “niece,” Ama, who hasn’t called home in a while. Ama has been swept up in an immigration crackdown, and now her young son Tano is missing.
When, by chance, Attila runs into Jean again, she mobilizes the neighborhood rubbish men she uses as volunteer fox spotters. Security guards, hotel doormen, traffic wardens—mainly West African immigrants who work the myriad streets of London—come together to help. As the search for Tano continues, a deepening friendship between Attila and Jean unfolds.
Meanwhile a consulting case causes Attila to question the impact of his own ideas on trauma, the values of the society he finds himself in, and a grief of his own. In this delicate tale of love and loss, of cruelty and kindness, Forna asks us to consider the interconnectedness of lives, our coexistence with one another and all living creatures, and the true nature of happiness.
A New York Times Editors’ Choice
“Happiness is reading Aminatta Forna’s foxy fare.”—Vanity Fair
“Arresting . . . Forna sets her key characters in motion, connecting them first by chance and ultimately by love . . . But Forna is too subtle and knowing a writer to create a straightforward, let alone inspirational, narrative . . . Forna’s plain descriptions have the force of revelation . . Throughout Happiness, Forna stops in our tracks . . . Reminiscent at times of Michael Ondaatje’s novel Anil’s Ghost. . . Happiness is a meditation on grand themes: Love and death, man and nature, cruelty and mercy. But Forna folds this weighty matter into her buoyant creation with a sublimely delicate touch.”—Washington Post
“Finely structured . . . [Happiness] powerfully succeeds on an intimate level.”—New York Times
“Profound and convincing . . . 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. . . a vision of [London] so vivid and multilayered that it becomes the novel’s central figure.”—Observer (UK)
“Forna’s fourth novel, Happiness, is a comprehensive tale of love, prejudicial conflict, coexistence between man and nature, and the success we invite when we embrace good and bad experiences.”—Los Angeles Review of Books
“This is not simply a love story, but a wider portrait of the ricocheting manifestations and effects of love in its various stages, as well as a serious examination of connection and coexistence . . . Forna is at her best when describing the sensory and physical landscape of London . . . and in particular the natural life of the city that we rarely see so closely observed . . . Sprawling yet composed, worldly yet intimate, [Happiness] is a tender evocation of the kaleidoscopic nature of the urban wilderness, as well as a challenge to the imposed centrality of the human animal.”—Guardian
“Forna isn’t in the business of offering cheap comfort . . . In the richness of its urban portrait and the nuance of its narrative, Happiness makes clear that life is always complex and kindness not a cure-all. This is a book about humanity’s glorious, irreducible mess; a book filled with grief, largesse and joy. It is not about escapism, or about making us feel good; rather it’s about making us feel everything.”—Times Literary Supplement (UK)
“From the understated and inexorable pull of plot and emotion to the luxuriousness of the details of varied ways of living and being to the tidal pull of language, Happiness is a great accomplishment.” —Viet Thanh Nguyen, author of The Sympathizer and The Refugees
“With Happiness, [Forna] pulls it off again . . . It is testament to Forna that none of this feels heavy. She has a deft touch and a warm style . . . Happiness is full of elegantly-written passages that you will want to revisit to make sense of changing circumstances in an increasingly tumultuous world.”—Evening Standard (UK)
“Mesmerizing . . . Forna is a risk-taker, a writer who doesn’t hold back. . . Happiness is one of a handful of contemporary novels that take both the human condition and the animal condition seriously. Entering Forna’s sweeping universe transports you to a place that feels familiar, but also totally feral and full of surprises.” —Financial Times (UK)
“Aminatta Forna expertly weaves her characters’ stories, past and present, in and out of the larger story of London, which becomes as rich a character as the human beings and, indeed, the foxes; and she makes us care deeply about them all, the foxes, the people and the city. A terrific novel.”—Salman Rushdie, author of The Golden House
“[A] piercingly intelligent and interrogative novel . . . [Happiness] registers tectonic shifts taking place in the world and provokes us to think anew about war, and what we take for peace and happiness.”—The Spectator (UK)
“A tightly focused two-hander . . . Happiness starts out as a novel about coincidence—chance encounters, twists of fate—and turns into one about coexistence: how to overcome intolerance, accept differences and live in harmony . . . A subtle, considered yet deeply resonant tale, one which sensitively and intelligently highlights connection over division and kindness over cruelty.”—Minnesota Star-Tribune
“Intertwining psychological, historical, and scientific insights, and seamlessly incorporating vignettes set in Iraq, Bosnia, and New England, Happiness explores the unexpected parallels between urban wildlife and the humans living next them . . . Aminatta Forna has given us a pertinent novel, one whose prose is fluid and dynamic.”—Zyzzyva
“[Forna] brings a cosmopolitan world view and a beautiful prose style to [Happiness], as well as deep insight into how we connect and adapt to the world.”—Tampa Bay Times
“A symphony on coexistence between partners in a marriage, between groups in a city, between strangers and old loves, and between a person and their memories, their past selves.”—THE Magazine
“Forna’s latest is crammed with big, intriguing ideas, and strong, quiet ambition.”—Will Boast, San Francisco Chronicle
“Absorbing . . . Forna’s prose is precise and often stunning in its clarity . . . [Happiness] burns brightly when it matters most.”—Seattle Times
“Piercingly empathetic, Forna’s latest explores instinct, resilience, and the complexity of human coexistence, reaffirming her reputation for exceptional ability and perspective.” —Kirkus Reviews (starred review)
“The overarching message tucked into Scottish and Sierra Leonian writer Forna’s quietly resonant novel is this: Every living thing is the net sum of its history, and we carry the weight of our past on our shoulders.…Intricately woven…Forna’s novel is ultimately a mesmerizing tale studded with exquisite writing” —Booklist (starred review)
“Elegant . . . Potent and immersive . . . Forna’s gift for characterization allows her to ask genuine, practical questions about the delicate problems of the human condition in this ambitious novel.”—Publishers Weekly
“It is a novel that carries a tremendous sense of the world, where I looked up upon finishing and sensed a shift in what I thought I knew, what I wanted to know. What a gift. . . Readers are in for a treat.”—The Millions (“A Year in Reading: Paul Yoon”)
“Forna’s novel is unusual and engaging, heartfelt and ambitiously crafted.”—Shelf Awareness
He turned his head back to her and Jean looked away. There was, she thought, a moment between men and women in which a woman can no longer meet a certain man’s gaze. Men held the power of the gaze, the freedom to look upon women as they pleased. In public a woman looked freely only upon men with whom there was no possibility of sex or the mistaken presumption of desire, in other words the very (very) old and the very young. In company women looked at men who might be colleagues or neighbours or married to women they knew, but even then their gaze was guarded. The moment friendship transformed into something else the woman looked away.
For the first time since she met Attila, Jean found she couldn’t look at him as easily as she once surely had, when she had sat with him on the bench overlooking the Thames, walking the streets of the capital, in the cafe. She felt that if their eyes were to meet he would see what was inside. She could feel him looking at her as she poured the coffee, though he said nothing as he accepted the cup she passed. Attila took a single sip of his coffee and set the cup down on the table. “I’m sorry,” he said. “I have something to which I must attend.”