Happiness by Aminatta Forna

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Review by Lucy Unwin

“You know how it is with white people. You say it’s race, they tell you you are mistaken. Then they say it’s because of your race when you say it is not.”

Happiness by Aminatta Forna

So says one of the characters in Happiness. So it is with great caution that I, from my white middle-class perspective, offer my thoughts on this wonderful book about … race. Or at least immigration.

Admittedly, it covers a million things besides: the core of happiness, the effect of trauma, dementia, grief – for those that have died, for those that have changed, for relationships that change, small pleasures, passing moments. But behind it all is the experience of immigrants.

Happiness follows two main characters from the moment they collide on Waterloo Bridge. Internationally-renowned Ghanaian psychiatrist, Attila, is in town to deliver a keynote on his area of expertise: Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, while American scientist Jean has been commissioned by Southwark council to study the urban fox population. Both characters bring to life a hidden London some of us only ever brush up against.

Through Jean’s focussed and compassionate environmentalism we see the nesting colony of green parakeets in a dead tree, the foxes making dens in abandoned containers, the birds that can be enticed to the most urban of rooftops. Through Attila’s open and intimate international perspective we see the culture brought to London from all over the world, but mostly from the diaspora of a multitude of African nations. It’s mainly shown through food: Attila eats like a king in places many Londoners may walk straight past. He favours tips for restaurants that specialise in individual cuisines, but then is introduced to a place where they all come together:

“The clientele were men mostly. Some looked north African, others from the Horn of Africa, a couple of well-dressed Malians in suits and slim loafers, a Nigerian fellow with tribal marks. A young woman in business clothes sat alone and read a newspaper … A buffet of dishes was kept warm under hot lights. Four kinds of rice: broken, basmati, beans and rice, country. Couscous, too. Chickpea porridge, fufu, cassava boiled and pounded, yams, plantain, steamed and fried. Mealie meal. There was a stew of eggs and coriander Attila had once tasted in Eritrea. Different kinds of plasas, okra, potato leaves and cassava leaves. Emmanuel grinned. ‘Nigerians,’ he said. ‘But they bring in cooks from all over.’”

The link I’m cautious to make, is the parallel between the those two hidden worlds: London’s wildlife and London’s immigrant communities. “Churchgoers dressed in their best, men and women in colours and fabrics created for a faraway sun, floating like mid-winter butterflies…”

Before studying foxes, Jean tracked Coyotes in her home town of Greenhampton, Massachusetts. “They knew that at night coyote walked the streets of Greenhampton. They knew that the animals crossed lawns, circled darkened houses. They knew that some coyote returned to the hills while others slid from view when the first house lights went on. By the time people were running their car engines the coyotes had slipped beneath the surface of the day, below the floorboards of abandoned buildings, in the garden sheds, to their dens in empty plots and the edges of parking lots. In towns and cities across the country, coyotes lived side by side with men, though only the coyotes knew it.”

Jean and Attila both really see what and who is right in front of them, and they appreciate and engage without judgement.

In the main storyline of Happiness, a child goes missing and Jean and Attila call on their networks of friends to help find him. The team is made up of street sweepers, traffic wardens, door-men, security guards. A community of immigrants who own London by night. Do they, too, then ‘slip beneath the surface of the day?’ It’s certainly true that they live side by side with white London, as though invisible. Hidden in plain sight. Symbolically, one of the crew of helpers is a living statue from the South Bank, complete with silver body makeup. To the average London resident he’s as good as invisible as an individual, but Jean and Attila see the man – Osman – beneath the skin colour, even if that skin colour is silver.

As the book progresses one errant fox is accused of hurting a child. Jean becomes the lone voice standing up against a public outcry. As a guest on a talk radio show she is ridiculed, and her facts and statistics dismissed, as calls rise for sterilisation, or a cull of all foxes. It’s not a long leap to imagine the same phone-in guests demanding immigration controls. They share a determination to see the unfamiliar as threatening. When reading details of a hunted coyote towards the end of the novel, the action hits with a gut-wrenching power. No parallel is explicitly drawn, but I can’t help think it’s so emotional because it represents a lynching.

But perhaps my mind is racing too far. What is certainly true, is that Jean and Attila both really see what and who is right in front of them, and they appreciate and engage without judgement.

As I mentioned, there are a million things besides in this novel. It is a complex woven tapestry of ideas and information. At times the many strands seem to fly off in too many directions, but it is worth the patience it takes to pull the threads together. The characters are wonderful and it is full of fascinating insights: I loved learning about the teams that manage war zones and Jean’s vision of the order in which a deserted London would return the wild.

And as the title suggests, there is much philosophising on the key to happiness. The answer? Maybe food, music, dancing, expecting the worst and surviving it, breaking down fake constructs, but mostly people. The communities of immigrants that hold London together, ready to help, existing side by side with their neighbours, in the light of day. It is perhaps no surprise that Osman feeds a stray fox. And that Komba, a former child soldier from Sierra Leone, has no trouble spotting a grey seal as it bobs its head above the water of the Thames.

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Lucy Unwin blogs at Those Precious Stolen Moments

Aminatta Forna, Happiness, (Bloomsbury, 2018) ISBN 978-1408893326, hardback, 320 pages.

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