Happiness by Aminatta Forna

Happiness opens with the tale of a wolf hunter in the US called in to track a wolf that is believed to have been killing sheep. He observes the surroundings, lies in wait, makes the kill, collects his bounty and then returns to lie in wait for the she-wolf he knows will come out after three days. Two species. Surviving.

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.

Attila has just been to the theatre, he has arrived a few days early to indulge his passion for theatre and to look up his niece Ama, whom the family hasn’t heard from recently, he will also see an old friend and former colleague Rosie, who has premature Alzheimers.

While we follow Attila on his rounds of visiting his friends and family, all of whom are in need of his aide, we witness flashbacks into his working life, his brief encounters in numerous war zones, where he was sent on missions to negotiate with hardline individuals often operating outside the law. He remembers his wife Maryse, there is deep sense of remorse.

His niece Ama and her 10 year old son Tano have been forcibly evicted from their apartment in an immigration crackdown, she is unable to resolve the matter, hospitalised due to an unstable diabetic condition. Attila responds with the help of the doorman of his hotel, who alerts other hotel doormen, to be on the lookout for Tano who has disappeared amidst all the confusion.

And there is Jean, in London to study the behaviour of the urban fox, she has funding for a period of time to observe them, their numbers, how they have come to be living in the city and whether they expose a risk to the humans they live alongside. She recruited a local street-cleaner and through him others, to be her field study fox spotters, the few people likely to regularly see them.

‘Everything happens for a reason, that was Jean’s view, and part of her job was tracing those chains of cause and effect, mapping the interconnectedness of things.’

These networks of connected men, the doormen, the streetcleaners and others, come together to help Jean and Attila in their search for Tano. They’ve texted his picture to each other, they know who to look for. They demonstrate something important, in their resilience and ability to adapt to this new environment, creating new support circles, many having been through traumatic experiences before finding a semblance of new life in London.

‘Let me do the same for you,’ said the doorman. ‘The doormen and security people, they are my friends. Most of those boys who work in security are Nigerian. We Ghanaians, we prefer the hospitality industry. Many of the doormen at these hotels you see around here are our countrymen. The street-sweepers, the traffic wardens are mainly boys from Sierra Leone, they came here after their war so for them the work is okay.’

The fox lives beside the human but inhabits a different time zone, most humans are little aware of their presence as their nocturnal meanderings cease the minute humanity awakens and begins to disturb a territory that belongs more to them in the small hours of the night.

Jean too remembers what she has left, in America, where she tried to do a similar study on the coyote, an animal that due to the human impact on the environment had left the prairie and moved towards more urban environment.

Finding herself in conflict with locals, who campaigned against the coyote, believing it to be a danger to humans, her voice silenced by those who preferred to extend hunting licences, despite her warnings that culling the coyote would result in their population multiplying not decreasing.

‘If you remove a coyote from a territory, by whatever means, say even if one dies of natural causes a space opens up. Another will move in.’

‘What if you were to kill a number of them, ten per cent of the total population, say?’

‘They’d reproduce at a faster rate. We call it hyper-reproduction. Have larger litters of cubs. Begin to mate younger, at a year instead of at two years. All animals do it, not just coyote,’ said Jean. ‘Humans do it after a war. The last time it happened we called it the ‘baby boom”.’

Now a similar debate arises in London, where the Mayor wants to cull the animals and Jean’s message, based on scientific evidence is being ignored, worse it attracts the attention of internet trolls, flaming the unsubstantiated fears of residents.

UK Cover

Ultimately the novel is about how we all adapt, humans and wild animals alike, to changing circumstances, to trauma, to the environment; that we can overcome the trauma, however we need to be aware of those who have adapted long before us, who will resist the newcomer, the propaganda within a political message.

And to the possibility that the experience of trauma doesn’t have to equate to continual suffering, that our narrative does not have to be that which happened in the past, it is possible to change, to move on, to find community in another place, to rebuild, to have hope. And that is perhaps what happiness really is, a space where hope  can grow, might exist, not the fulfilment of, but the idea, the expression.

Hope. Humour. Survival.

Salman Rushdie alludes to this after the fatwa was issued against him when he said this:

“Those who do not have power over the story that dominates their lives, power to retell it, rethink it, deconstruct it, joke about it, and change it as times change, truly are powerless, because they cannot think new thoughts.”

Aminatta Forna

In an enlightening article in The Guardian, linked below, Forna describes reading Resilience, by renowned psychologist Boris Cyrulnik. Born in France in 1937, his parents were sent to concentration camps in WW2 and never returned. He survived, but his story often wasn’t believed, it didn’t fit the narrative of the time. He studied medicine and became a specialist in resilience.

“It’s not so much that I have new ideas,” he says, at pains to acknowledge his debt to other psychoanalytic thinkers, “but I do offer a new attitude. Resilience is about abandoning the imprint of the past.”

The most important thing to note about his work, he says, is that resilience is not a character trait: people are not born more, or less, resilient than others. As he writes: “Resilience is a mesh, not a substance. We are forced to knit ourselves, using the people and things we meet in our emotional and social environments.

Further Reading

My Review: The Memory of Love by Aminatta Forna

My Review: The Hired Man by Aminatta Forna

Article: Aminatta Forna: ‘We must take back our stories and reverse the gaze’, Writers of African heritage must resist the attempts of others to define us and our history, Feb 2017

Article: Escape from the past: Boris Cyrulnik lost his mother and father in the Holocaust. But childhood trauma needn’t be a burden, he argues – it can be the making of us. by Viv Groskop Apr 2009


Note: This book was an ARC, kindly provided by the publisher (Grove Atlantic) via NetGalley. It is published March 6 in the US and 5 April in the UK.

Buy a copy of Happiness via BookDepository


19 thoughts on “Happiness by Aminatta Forna

    • They didn’t come to me immediately, they came out in the gestation period of a few days after reading, I kept having epiphanies after reading this, which then lead me to the article and to the work of the French psychologist. The London setting was really interesting for me, so familiar and especially seeing it through the eyes of outsiders, and night walkers and of course the urban fox. I find her work intriguing.

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  1. This sounds like an important, insightful read. At first, reading your review, I was completely mixed up about what the book is about. I couldn’t connect especially with the presence of the fox in the narrative. However, I like how you broke down the themes in the story and especially about trauma and happiness. That is an important message. I am one person who believes that my entire life has been shaped by a childhood trauma. Perhaps my belief is what makes it true. Perhaps trauma and the past doesn’t have to shape our futures. I don’t know but its an interesting perspective.

    This book might not be for me because I tend to shy away from ‘complex’ reads but I do like the message. Thanks for sharing Claire.


    • Your reading of my review is a little like my reading of the book, when I wrote notes on Goodreads I wrote just words like wolf, coyote, fox, human, trauma, suffering, damage or trauma, suffering, change and onward like that, the understanding of the connections in the story and the message comes at the end. It is first and foremost a story and seems simple at first, and for some it may remain at that level, but it felt to me there was a lot more going on at a deeper level and our understanding comes after the character Attila has his own epiphany. Thank you for your thoughtful comment Diana.

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  2. Hi Claire – I admire Aminatta Forna’s writing and I think I might like to read all of her books – I have yet to read Ancestor Stones, but I loved reading The Memory of Love and I liked The Hired Man. Now for Happiness!


    • Yes, I want to go back and read her memoir and debut novel for sure, her work feels important and her perspective so insightful and profound, in a way Happiness may also be telling us that she too is healing and has hope after the trauma of her own childhood. I think it’s important that we begin to read more stories with this message of hope, not sugary, but there’s so much brutality that has been expressed through literature and very little hope, to me this story shows us the other side, flawed and imperfect still, but those moments of community of support that we find in here are key.

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  3. I need to read more Forna. I’ve only read The hired man. But wow, what different covers in those two editions of this book.

    Happiness is such a tricky concept – one that challenged me when I was trying to help my children, in their late teens and early twenties and struggling with their lives. You can’t be “happy” all the time but what can you aim to be? I like this idea that it is a space where hope can grow – a sense of, perhaps, confidence or calm that you can handle whatever life throws at you (even though sometimes that means being elated and other times grief stricken or whatever.)

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    • I did wonder for quite a way through the book what ‘Happiness’ was all about, and that perhaps is the point, it’s not obvious even when we’re living it, because we ascribe it to the wrong things and often only see it in hindsight.

      The UK version reminded me I didn’t even mention the parakeets in my review, but I think they have less of an impact in the story for me than the urban fox, I’m a little surprised they’ve used this image, even if it is striking, I guess it’s more about making a reader pick up the book than it’s connection to the story. It’s certainly a beautiful cover.

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  4. I was attracted right away to the title of this book and put it on hold at the library. I noticed that I also have the other two books of hers that you’ve read on my Goodreads list… I might finally get to one! It’s funny the seemingly arbitrary things that lead one to pick up some books and not others. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • I still have two more of her books that I’d like to read, and when I look back I’m grateful that it was kind of by accident I even started reading Forna, thanks to it being on my Aunt”s kindle when she gifted it to me. She’s an author I look forward to everything she’s written, articles and novels, always insightful, thought-provoking.

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