Book review: Happiness by Aminatta Forna – in search of somewhere special
Nature meets London in all its multilayered glory in Forna’s vivid portrait of marginalised people.
In his book about the rise of populist politics, The Road to Somewhere, the rightwing thinker and former Prospect editor David Goodhart diagnosed the deep divide that has emerged in Britain between “somewheres” and “anywheres”. Somewheres feel a deep connection to the (often rural) place in which they live, are socially conservative and less well educated. Anywheres are metropolitan liberals, equally at home in Manhattan or Mumbai, university-educated and rootless. Theresa May was describing Anywheres when she said: “If you believe you are a citizen of the world then you are a citizen of nowhere.”
Aminatta Forna’s fourth novel, Happiness, is the story of two Anywheres, Attila and Jean, and offers a profound and convincing riposte to the narrow-mindedness of Goodhart’s thesis. This is a novel about migration, about the long shadows cast by episodes of historical violence, about the many overlapping and interconnected somewheres created by people on the margins, those who fall outside what Goodhart – and many others – mean when they say British society.
Attila Asare is a large, quiet, Ghanaian man in late middle age. He’s a psychiatrist whose career has taken him from war zone to war zone – “places lost in the moral darkness” – piecing together the shattered minds of survivors, cataloguing the damage. He has come from Accra, where his wife, Maryse, has recently died, to London. Attila is a man who feels his obligations keenly: there’s an academic conference to attend, a former lover devastated by Alzheimer’s to care for, a niece who appears to have disappeared into London’s sprawl to find. Throughout the novel there are italicised passages from the past that serve to deepen our appreciation of the novel’s present moment. We get snatches of Attila’s working life in Bosnia, Sierra Leone, Iraq, see him under extraordinary pressure, tested by the horrors of war and the bureaucratic nightmares of multinational relief work.
It is as if the author has privileged access into multiple spheres of existence, learning the secret languages of each
Jean Turane has left her husband, Ray, a car salesman, and her adult son, Luke, back in Massachusetts. She’s no longer young, but has come to London to seek a fresh start. She’s an academic with experience tracking coyotes and wolves in the US. In London, her subject is another member of the canidae family – the city’s urban foxes. She knows the vulpine inhabitants of her patch of south London intimately, greets them like old friends when they pass in the sodium-lit night, and has employed an ad-hoc posse of street sweepers and other night wanderers to help her track the foxes. She makes ends meet by designing rooftop gardens, bringing little patches of nature to life in the city’s heights.
A number of narrative MacGuffins underpin the plot of Happiness: the search for Attila’s niece and her son, Tano; the case of a post-traumatic stress disorder sufferer accused of arson; Attila’s attempts to find a flat for his former lover and her carer; the affection slowly building between Attila and Jean. The real joy of the novel, though, is in its portrait of London and its inhabitants. Forna’s voice is relentlessly compelling, her ability to summon atmosphere extraordinary, her sympathetic portrayal of traffic wardens, street performers, security guards, hotel doormen a thing of lasting beauty. It is as if the author has privileged access into multiple spheres of existence, learning the secret languages of each, conferring dignity and consequence on these figures who often pass unseen and unrecorded in our accounts of contemporary life.
Happiness might also very easily be viewed as part of the new nature writing movement. Nature is everywhere in the novel, from the foxes to the wolves and coyotes we read about in the flashbacks from Jean’s life, to the monk parakeetswhich, in 2014, when the novel is set, were in the process of being eradicated from London’s parks by Defra.
But this is not nature merely to provide a picturesque backdrop. The photographer Mark Ruwedel noted that “at this point in history, pure nature is no longer a viable subject”, and Forna’s nature writing is deeply political. The animals of the city live in uneasy symbiosis with humans, reliant on the detritus of our lives for food, but constantly threatened both intentionally and accidentally: the parakeet cull and a later fox cull that sees Jean, who opposes it, dubbed #madfoxwoman on Twitter; the illegal lamp-lit hunting of foxes in urban parks; the constant menace of traffic; threats, too, from other animals: there’s a wonderful early passage in which a peregrine falcon swoops to snatch a pigeon in flight.
Happiness asks us to think about the interconnectedness of lives both human and animal, about what we choose to see and ignore as we move through the city, about the power of small acts of decency. In Attila and Jean, Forna has created two memorable characters; in her portrayal of London, she has achieved something more remarkable – a vision of the city so vivid and multilayered that it becomes the novel’s central figure. There is no single “somewhere”, Forna is telling us, but multiple, overlapping somewheres which all of us, wherever we’re from, and however long we remain there, may seek to call home.
• Happiness by Aminatta Forna is published by Bloomsbury (£16.99). To order a copy for £14.44 go to guardianbookshop.com or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £10, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of £1.99