In Aminatta Forna’s fourth novel, Happiness, the collision of two strangers on a London bridge sets in motion a series of events involving a missing child, a mysterious court case and city-dwelling foxes.
When animal biologist Jean Turane is knocked down by Attila Asare on Waterloo Bridge, she is in pursuit of a fox whose behavior she’s been chronicling as part of a larger study on urban wildlife. Attila, a noted psychologist from Ghana, is on his way to a dinner. Both have devoted their professional lives to understanding and interpreting behavior, whether in child soldiers or animals, and find that their initial meeting, however accidental, reveals they have much in common. Attila is in town to present a paper on war-related post-traumatic stress disorder but also plans to visit family and to check in on Rose, a former lover and co-worker diagnosed with early onset Alzheimer’s. Over the next 10 days, Attila’s niece is swept up in an immigration crackdown, and Rose’s needs prove ill served by the nursing home, while Jean gets drawn more deeply into a citywide fox-culling controversy. Both Attila and Jane turn to neighborhood residents—mostly North African immigrants—to assist them in their searches for missing relatives and elusive foxes, and their relationship evolves from allies to lovers.
When Attila is asked to be an expert witness in a court case involving a woman from Sierra Leone accused of arson, he begins to re-evaluate the causal links between suffering and trauma, and starts to question the nature of happiness itself.
Forna has explored war and its aftermath before, most notably in her memoir, The Devil That Danced on the Water, which centered on her father’s execution for false charges of treason during the civil war in Sierra Leone. Happiness is a different kind of book—less dramatic, but with the delicacy and strength of a spider’s web. An understated but piercing narrative of great compassion, Happiness trades action for a thoughtful study of adaptability and the empathic bonds shared between humans and animals.