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‘Happiness’ by Aminatta Forna

You know when a book bears the title ‘Happiness’ you expect it to be good vibes and literally just happiness! People often complain that there is too much suffering in books and that they are tired of the pain and suffering. I would like to believe that authors write stories about their reality and their dreams too, they write the stories that come to them. I picked this novel this week hoping for a feel good book and I wanted something from a familiar writer. Let me just say I was in for a ride. I struggled with this book and it took me a long time to get into the flow of the story.


Author’s Profile

Aminatta Forna is a Scottish and Sierra Leonan writer was born in Scotland, raised in Sierra Leone and Great Britain and spent periods of her childhood in Iran, Thailand and Zambia. She is the award-winning author of the novels Happiness, The Hired Man, The Memory of Love and Ancestor Stones, and a memoir The Devil that Danced on the Water. Happiness is her fifth book. Forna is set to release a new non-fiction book, ‘The Window Seat: Notes from a Life in Motion‘ in May 2021.


My Thoughts

This is a story about Attila and Jean whose lives cross at the Waterloo Bridge in London. Attila is a psychiatrist from Ghana and Jean is a wildlife biologist from America. Both find themselves in London for different reasons and Forna takes us through their lives, the disasters surrounding them and the mystery of human existence. I wondered if their meeting was coincidental or not? For the longest time, Tano (Attila’s nephew) becomes the glue connecting them. Some of the major themes in this book are love, loss, mental health, wildlife conversation, patience, community and grief. It is through Forna’s use of flashbacks that one gets to understand Attila and Jean respectively. I am still deciding if happiness was anywhere to be found in this book, maybe happiness is what Attila calls ‘THE PARADOX.’

I liked the other characters‘ places in the plot, the African immigrants working in the streets of London. Some are security guards, drivers, performers, waiters, doormen, caregivers and through these characters Forna is able to bring out the importance of space, migration, identity and what a better life means for people who leave home in search of greener pastures and freedom. The juxtaposition of these immigrants and Attila who is also an immigrant but in a different context brings that idiom ‘not all animals are equal’ to life. Jean’s place as an American immigrant in London also brings a fresh perspective to the plot with her own life disintegrating right before her. These characters‘ backgrounds, expectations and realities are different yet their paths cross for a reason.

Being a nature lover myself, I enjoyed how this book was in tune with nature; thebirds, foxes, coyotes and landscaping/gardening. The coyotes are a major part of this story as Forna examines space and wildlife conservation. Although the coyotes did not strike my interest that much, Forna had me thinking about how we, humans often forget that the earth is a shared space. How ‘civilization‘ has interrupted the system in more ways than one. We are residents of this earth and so are animals, but where and how is the balance to be struck when we build our cities in places that used to be the wild for wildlife? How do we share space without being selfish when our first instinctis always to act in that manner. The big question is how can co-existence be created?

This book was a bit slow/meandering for my liking in the beginning and only found an enjoyable pace once I was midway through it. In the beginning it seemed like there was a lot happening at the same time and there were so many characters to acclimatize with. I am not one to give up on a book and the rest of the story did not disappoint. The language is simple and I thoroughly enjoyed the last hundred pages of the book. I found Atilla’s character difficult to connect with until I realized at the end that this was a man who had not mourned the death of a loved one. A man who walked around with grief caged in his ribs. From the onset it is clear that Jean and Attila will end up together but their friendship and relationship is not compelling. It was like an imperfect match and disappointing . Attila seems to be more in tune with Rosie. Rosie, what an interesting character, one whose personality I admire because of how it seemed she had lived a full life. But is it ever possible to say one has lived a full life?

Here are some quotes from the book:

1. ‘You know a lot of people nowadays believe they’re owed a happy ending.’ page 39

2. ‘Jean wondered if this was the difference between men and women. Women. Raised to believe Love was something to be earned, by being pretty and good and not too clever and not too slutty. Taught to hold on to their husbands by staying pretty and good and not too clever and never slutty. Add keep your figure and a decent home. Men. Raised to expect unconditional love, first from their mothers (and mothers did love their sons more than their daughters, whatever anyone said), and then from every woman afterwards.’ pages 71-72

3. ‘War is in the blood of humans. The kind of people who torture and rape during war, they’re always among us, every time you walk down a busy street you’re passing killers waiting to kill. War gives them a licence. We tell ourselves people are ordinarily good, but where is the proof of that? There are no ordinarily good people, just a lot of people who’ve never been afforded the opportunity to be something else.’ page 118

4. ‘Human beings were above all else herd animals. People were scared to be on the outside, would accede to the most terrible things as the price for inclusion.’ page 193

5. ‘They want to be safe, they want to be comfortable. They want to believe that they are in control of their lives, and they want that thing that we call freedom. It all comes at a price, but don’t you dare mention that. People want choices without consequences. And we give it to them, fools that we are.’ page 206

Perhaps it was the structure and meandering flow of the book that put me off. However, it was interesting to connect the dots and finding out how the parakeet on the cover is connected to the title or the book was a bonus. Suffering does not equal damage. I did not get what I was looking for but what I got was not that bad either.


Book Details

Title: Happiness

Author: Aminatta Forna

Genre: Fiction

Pages: 320

Publisher: Bloomsbury Publishing; 1st edition (2018)

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