Review: Happiness by Aminatta Forna

37807353Verdict: Uneven.

My rating: 3 out of 5 stars

Date read: March 28th, 2018

Published by Bloomsbury, April 4th 2018

Find it on Goodreads.

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” 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 network of 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 co-existence with one another and all living creatures, and the true nature of happiness.

I was sure I would adore this book – and I enjoyed plenty of it, but parts left me bored and slightly confused. This is a story of chance and coincidence, of strangers meeting and lives slowly changing – and I loved that aspect of it. But it is also a book about animals in urban places – and that I was not so keen on.

Aminatta Forna tells her story slowly and considerately. I had the impression that every word, every sentence was placed very thoughtfully and carefully. While I can appreciate her craft, I also found it lifeless. Her prose was just not quite sharp enough for me to excuse the rambling nature of her narrative. While it is certainly accomplished, for me something was lacking. And I cannot quite put my fingers on what exactly the missing ingredient was – but as it is  found the overall book less compelling than its many parts.

Part of that has to do with the fact that I found her two protagonists, Attila the psychologist and Jean the biologist, more compelling when they weren’t interacting with each other. I thought Jean’s struggle as a researcher who is missing her son was compelling and interesting (and very close to my heart); Attila’s restlessness and his interesting profession as somebody working with trauma was another highpoint for me – but for some reason I did not find them believable together and I thought their interactions did not ring true to what their characters were on their own (this might very well have been on purpose, I know, showing that they bring out the best in each other but it didn’t really work for me).

There were definite glimpses of brilliance here though. Jean’s interactions with her extended network of rubbish men and security and everybody else walking the streets were wonderful and lovely and absolutely felt true. Her conversations with her son were painful to read but poignant. Attila’s love for his wife was wonderfully drawn and the juxtaposition with his restlessness was incredibly well done. But this brilliance was not quite enough for me to off-set the pages and pages of musings on coyotes and foxes and their changing habitats;a topic that I am very much not interested in at all and that Forna did not manage to make interesting.

I received an ARC of this book courtesy of NetGalley and Bloomsbury Publishing in exchange for an honest review.


5 thoughts on “Review: Happiness by Aminatta Forna

  1. Yes yes yes. All of this. Lifeless is the perfect word for her prose – I kept waiting for it to make me feel something, but I was just reading like ‘oh, this is nicely done.’ And that’s such a great point about Jean and Attila being more compelling when they’re apart, I completely agree with that. Their relationship didn’t really ring true for me. Agreed about the few moments of brilliance, I wish they had sustained the rest of the book 😦

    Liked by 1 person

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