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

 

The Hired Man by Aminatta Forna

Aminatta Forna

Aminatta Forna

Aminatta Forna has written two previous novels, The Memory of Love and Ancestor Stones both set in Sierra Leone where she was raised. She has also written an investigative memoir delving into the political events around the seizure and execution of her father on false charges of treason entitled The Devil that Danced on the Water that I plan to read.

After reading The Memory of Love last year and seeing her interviewed, it is clear she is a writer of courage and I knew I would be reading whatever she produced next.

The Hired ManJust as with The Memory of Love which is set in the aftermath of conflict of that disconcerting type where civilians mysteriously disappear and terrible unspoken things happen, in The Hired Man, we find ourselves following in the footsteps of 46-year-old Duro, an unmarried man living alone with his two dogs, his sisters and mother having already fled whatever horror occurred in their home town of Gost, a fictitious town caught between opposing sides in the former Yugoslavia.

“They have taken up a position south of the town opposite the army in the north. In between lies Gost. The army want to reach the coast but we stand in their way. Each side has roadblocks you have to pass through, on the road north and on the rods south out of Gost. Same questions, but different answers to each.”

For much of the early part of the book, we don’t know what has happened there, but Forna a somehow infuses the story with that sense of knowing yet not knowing, creating an underlying, slow building tension and unwillingness to trust any of the characters we come across. The events may be long in the past, but their memories feel as though they are not far from the surface and that anything could happen. And strange things do occur.

Into this undercurrent arrive an English woman Laura and her teenage son and daughter. Seemingly oblivious to the effect of their presence on the local villagers, they hire Duro and set about making improvements to the home they have purchased from with a view to doing it up and selling it on.

“I realised I’d upset the balance of thing. That I was a hired man and she was my employer made Laura relaxed in having me around the house. A mistake to take a day away without explanation: it made her feel she wasn’t the boss.”

Territory that made up the former Yugoslavia

Territory that made up the former Yugoslavia

We read the story through the eyes of the hired man Duro and interestingly Forna has chosen to narrate the story around Laura and her children in the past tense while Duro’s reflection on the past are written in the present even though they occurred many years before. It has that effect of making the past feel more present and could be how she succeeds in creating that tension, we read about the past as if it happened only recently.

“Vinca Pavic is an angry woman and her anger shows in the set of her teeth, the lines around her mouth into which her lipstick bleeds, the way she folds her arms. When she laughs it is to mock and in this she finds an ally in her son. But Anka, Anka was born with joy in her soul, to which they feel she has no right. Behind it all, as with so many things in life and in death, lies envy. In the end it gets the better of them.”

The Hired Man is a brilliant, quiet portrayal of the aftermath of conflict on a community, it goes some way towards explaining the meaning behind the silences, about why some can’t bear to stay and others can not bear to leave. It reminds us that nothing is forgotten and is a warning to outsiders to take care, that ignorance or indifference are sometimes deemed sufficient to warrant punishment.

Additional Reading:  Aminatta Forna: A Life in Writing provides excellent background reading and context to the book.

Note: This book was an Advance Reader Copy (ARC) provided by the publisher via NetGalley.