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TRAUMA, A LOST BOY, FOXES AND HAPPINESS

October 2, 2019

HappinessAminatta Forna, Happiness, 2018

A large man strolling across Waterloo Bridge stops to admire the Houses of Parliament. A woman runs into him and bounces back onto the ground. This is how the two main characters of Happiness first meet. Attila is a Ghanaian psychiatrist, a specialist in trauma who spends much of his time in war zones. Jean is an American wildlife biologist who is researching urban foxes in London. She had been running across the bridge, following a fox.

Despite this opening, Happiness is far from being a romcom. It is a deep character study of two engaging people with rich experience of life. They combine to search for a missing boy, the son of Attila’s niece. The doorman at Attila’s hotel enlists other immigrants – security people, street sweepers, traffic wardens – while Jean’s army of fox-spotters, mostly night-workers, also join the search. As the quest proceeds, it pulls in others, such as street performers. This part of the novel brings the city of London to life. Forna portrays immigrants and locals working together to respond to an urgent problem, and shows how coexistence can work in practice.

Coexistence is a strong theme of the novel. Jean’s work is about human-animal coexistence. Her advocacy is opposed by hunters, mayors and shock jocks. In telling Jean’s story, Forna writes beautifully on nature. Her passages about foxes, coyotes, wolves, birds and trees made me stop, reread and marvel at her descriptive powers.

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Aminatta Forna (Photo: JurgenMatern CC-BY-SA) 

In his work, Attila has experienced the horrors of war. ‘War is in the blood of humans,’ he tells Jean. ‘The kind of people who torture and rape during war, they’re always with us, every time you walk down a busy street you’re passing killers waiting to kill. War gives them licence.’

But Attila is critical of the growing tendency to diagnose Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder after any difficult event. This thread plays out when he agrees to act as an expert witness in the trial of a woman who committed arson sometime after her husband died in a vehicle accident.

‘Suffering does not equal damage,’ Attila says. ‘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’ Attila has often observed joy amongst those who have suffered most.

In an interview, Forna said: ‘The paradox is that happiness is not contingent on the absence of suffering, but the reverse — that surviving difficulty can lead to happiness. In this culture we are conditioned to believe that anything other than pleasure is a threat to happiness, that happiness is an all or nothing condition.’

Forna’s novel is absorbing, moving and entertaining. Reading Happiness  is pure pleasure.

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