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Review: Adaptation is the key to Aminatta Forna's 'Happiness'

Published Apr. 10, 2018

Wildness is always with us, whether we know it or not, whether we want it or not.

In Aminatta Forna's splendid new novel Happiness, the tension between wildness — animal and human — and control is a central issue for the two main characters.

Attila Asare and Jean Turane meet when they literally collide, in a moment when the wild is revealed in one of the largest cities in the world. Attila is walking across Waterloo Bridge in London on a winter evening. The Ghanaian psychiatrist is in the city to deliver the keynote speech at an international conference about the diagnosis and treatment of trauma. Jean, an American who studies urban wildlife, is surveying London's fox population — including the one she's following intently as it trots across the bridge among pedestrians during rush hour. The collision between Attila and Jean, which knocks her off her feet, lasts only for moments, but their paths will cross again.

Jean grew up in Massachusetts, fell into marriage with a hometown guy, raised a son. Her life was entirely predictable until she decided to go to college, got a degree and worked on a project to study urban coyotes.

"By the time people were running their car engines," Forna writes, "the coyotes had slipped beneath the surface of the day, below the floorboards of abandoned buildings, in 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, although only the coyotes knew it."

Jean finds the animals fascinating and loves their resilience and independence. She also learns one lesson all too vividly: "Some people hated coyotes for being what they were, and what they were was beyond the control of humans."

She's so enthralled by them that when her husband asks for a divorce, he cites her passion for studying them as the wedge in their marriage. When she moves to London for the fox survey, she finds she relishes living alone.

Attila has traveled all over the world, everywhere there is war and violence, to do his work: "Young men giving their bodies and their minds in battle, sent by middle-aged men who only ever handled a gun on their weekend duck shoots, and men like Attila tasked with the job of trying to keep the young men sane while what they were being asked to do was an insanity itself."

Compared to teeming refugee camps and chaotic war zones, a visit to London is a welcome respite — or would be if he didn't find himself conducting rescues even there. As Attila arrives he learns his niece, Ama, has been picked up by immigration authorities. It's an error soon cleared up, but while she was held her 10-year-old son, Tano, was placed in foster care, and now he has vanished.

Ama's stress lands her in the hospital, and to Attila falls the task of finding a frightened boy in a vast city. That's how he and Jean meet again, and they form an unlikely search party composed of the street sweepers she has enlisted to help with her fox count and the hotel doormen and security guards, immigrants from Africa, to whom Attila has links.

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Attila has another person to attend to in London, his former lover and longtime colleague and friend Rose Lennox. Not that Rose realizes it; she is living in a care center for dementia patients and no longer recognizes him. When she was diagnosed but still lucid, Rose, who has no family, asked him to supervise her care, and he does so with great tenderness. But changes at the center and in her condition mean that he might have to make new arrangements for her.

As Jean and Attila get to know each other, she is dealing with a growing public outcry about urban foxes, appearing on a combative radio show with a host who spouts wacky theories about the animals and their population boom.

Over dinner with Attila, Jean explains a more plausible reason for increasing urban wildlife: "Fast food. ... the sidewalks have turned into an 'all you can eat' buffet for foxes. The same is true for cities the world over. Heaven for rats, pigeons, you name it."

Jean's work and Attila's might seem dissimilar, but Forna slowly reveals their intersection on a key topic: adaptation. How do those foxes learn to live with humans? And how do humans learn to live again after the worst losses imaginable? The latter is a question that applies to Jean and Attila as well.

Happiness is the fourth novel by Forna, who has also published an award-winning memoir, The Devil That Danced on the Water. Born in Scotland and raised in Sierra Leone and Great Britain, she has also been a journalist and documentary filmmaker and is currently on the faculty of Georgetown and Bath Spa universities.

She brings a cosmopolitan world view and a beautiful prose style to this novel, as well as deep insight into how we connect and adapt to the world, or don't.

For all his expertise, Attila learns something new about trauma in the course of Happiness: "How do we become human except in the face of adversity?"

Contact Colette Bancroft at or (727) 893-8435. Follow @colettemb.


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