Jean is researching the habits of urban foxes in London, far from her native New England and from her ex-husband and young adult son, neither of whom seem to need her very much any more. Attila, a Ghanaian psychiatrist specialising in PTSD who has worked in conflict zones ranging from Bosnia to Sierra Leone, is in London to attend a conference but is also looking for his friend’s young son, who has gone missing. Happiness, Aminatta Forna’s fourth novel, thus picks up on the themes of war and displacement that were prominent in her previous novels The Memory of Love and The Hired Man, but also adeptly views London from beneath. Attila recruits street workers to help him with his search, reflecting ‘He had a city of eight million people, he had a lost boy and he had a team of doormen and dustmen.’ Jean uses the same informal network to record sightings of the foxes she’s tracking; the parallels between ‘legal’ inhabitants’ hatred and fear of both urban wildlife and undocumented immigrants are obvious.
At one point, Jean reflects on her previous campaign to stop the local coyotes being defined as ‘nuisance animals’ in New England, and how she was told by a forest manager ‘Coyote don’t belong here… This is a prairie animal and it belongs on the prairie.’ Jean countered this: ‘I only know that they’re here now, so evidently, quite evidently, at some level they do belong. Better than you or me, you could say. They have adapted to what was already here, while we had to change what we found to suit us… coyote belong everywhere they live.’ Jean’s frustrated attempts to explain ecosystems to a deliberately ignorant populace recall other fictional female biologists, from Rachel in Sarah Hall’s The Wolf Border, which speculates about what might happen if wolves were reintroduced into England, to Deanna in Barbara Kingsolver’s fascinating Prodigal Summer, which similarly deals with coyote populations, although in the Appalachians this time. Attila effectively sums up the struggles of these smart, caring protagonists after Jean tries to deal with listeners’ questions about foxes on a radio show: ‘You treated the listeners like adults. It’s hard not to feel frustrated when they don’t respond in kind.’ Similar things could be said about voters’ attitudes to immigration in both the US and in Britain.
Happiness isn’t driven by a single plot thread; the search for the little boy is never especially prominent, and is resolved early on, and while Jean is concerned about the fate of urban foxes, this is only one strand among many. Because of this, the novel could possibly have been shortened. There’s also some thematic discussion of how trauma and adversity may actually make people happier in the long run – that those who avoid pain are living ‘numbed’ lives – that is interesting, but doesn’t quite land. Nevertheless, I enjoyed the meditative pace, and felt drawn forward by Attila and Jean as individuals, by their experience of lives that are not orientated around a nuclear family, but nevertheless contain important emotional commitments. By foregrounding characters who live outside the usual limits, Forna writes compellingly about other ways of being happy.