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 Memory of Love by Aminatta Forna

When I was gifted my kindle by my kind, book-loving Aunt,  Aminatta Forna’s The Memory of Love was one of the preloaded titles I looked forward to reading.

Aminatta Forna was born in Scotland and raised in Sierra Leone, the country where most of this story takes place. She is the daughter of a former Sierra Leonean cabinet minister and dissident, murdered by the state in 1975. She has written the story of three men, whose lives intersect briefly, and who come into contact with each other at the Freetown Central Hospital.

Dr Adrian Lockhart, recently arrived from London has responded to a request to an overseas posting for a government-sponsored psychologist specialising in PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder), his thoughts and actions suggesting he may be in the midst of a midlife crisis, needing some distance from his life to see it for what it really is. Life in Sierra Leone may allow but doesn’t appreciate such self-centred indulgences and Dr Kai Mansaray, a young local surgeon gives him an honest portrayal of just how people like him are perceived, lacking sufficient equanimity to see it for himself. Despite the frankness, the two become friends and seek out each other’s company with increasing frequency.

Both men experience love and its aftermath, its vulnerability, its brief joy, its destruction and the memory of it, as if it were real, even when it no longer exists.

 For death takes everything, leaves behind no possibilities, save one – which is to remember. He cannot believe with what intensity one can continue to love a person who is dead. Only fools, he believes, think that love is for the living alone.

In addition to his post at the hospital, Adrian helps out at the mental hospital and recognises Agnes, one of his former patients (one visit patients – they visit once and never return).

The people his colleagues sent to him were outpatients mostly, the ones with whom the doctors could find nothing wrong. And afterwards each of his new patients made the same request for medicines, to which Adrian explained he was not that sort of doctor. A nod of acceptance, rather than understanding. None of them ever returned.

Agnes is discharged before Adrian sees her and he becomes intent on trying to resolve the cause of her illness, a fugue, or temporary amnesia, and in doing so he will come too close to the sick, ugliness of the country’s past conflict where sometimes amnesia may be the only respite one has from a brutal reality.

We also meet Professor Elias Cole, an old history professor who taught at Freetown university before and after the 1969 coup, his position afterwards, somewhat elevated than it was previously. He has an obsessive fixation on Saffia, the wife of another Professor, whom he befriends and becomes caught up with unknowingly, leading to an interrogation and a spell in prison, which will change both their lives. He encounters Adrian in the hospital, near the end of his life, seeking an audience to share his story before it is too late. Adrian listens and realises there is more to Professor Cole’s story than he is letting on.

This is a multi-layered story that reveals itself with each encounter, that hints at the traumatic events and psychological destruction of a nation, depicting the constant struggle for survival in a post-war era and the love it’s citizens have for their country despite the difficulties and horrors of the past. There is sacrifice in staying and pain in leaving; there is no real escape, both will suffer, albeit in different ways.

The author, Aminatta Forna

I really enjoyed this book, it was a pleasure to read and consider its characters and what they represented, I loved it for the questions it posed in the mind of the reader, leaving us to come to our own conclusions, for every question could have had an equally valid, if opposite answer, such is life and the characters who inhabit our own reality, there are those who will stand up even it means they will be sacrificed and those who will remain quiet and flourish.

It is as if there are no answers, there are just the decisions we make, that both we and the generations that follow then need to live with and understand.

I recommend listening to this powerful discussion between the BBC’s Bola Masuor and Aminatta Forna on the BBC World Service talking about both The Memory of Love and The Devil that Danced on the Water, the book she wrote about her search for the truth of her father’s fate after he was seized by secret police and later killed.

When you do nothing, what do your children inherit?

*

The plain fact of the matter is that any group will remain potentially conscienceless and evil until such a time as each and every individual holds himself or herself directly responsible for the behaviour of the whole group – the organism of which he or she is part. We have not yet begun to arrive at that point. – from the work of M. Scott Peck, People of the Lie

Buy The Memory of Love via Book Depository