By Aminatta Forna
New York City, New York: Grove Paperback, January 2019
352 pages, $16.00, paperback.
Reviewed by Luke Seale
In the realm of literary fiction, it is not often that true coincidence occurs. The inclusion of fluke occurrences is often sidestepped by the great creative writers of today, touting the strategy as poor form for introducing major plot points. Aminatta Forna begins combatting this misconception from the moment you first crack the cover. Happiness is a story deeply rooted in happenstance, exclusively relying upon it’s ability to incite action. In a carefully crafted expose of interconnection, sprawling from 1834 to present, Attila Asure and Jean Turane fall victim to incidental love, a brand of affection that shifts as steadily as the Earth.
In the new paperback edition of one of the best books of 2018, a modest survivalist fox acts as an unlikely conductor, orchestrating a chance encounter. As the book’s central characters first collide on London’s Waterloo Bridge, the stereotypical meeting of two Shakespearean “star-crossed lovers” is avoided. No textbooks are dropped, a longing and meaningful stare does not occur, and neither character spontaneously bursts out into song. Attila and Jean first encounter one another like the normal work-dedicated adults that they are, by crashing into each other in a crowded city, exchanging apologies, and promptly walking away in opposite directions.
After a second incidental meeting on the bridge, Attila, a Ghanaian psychologist with a certain expertise in the field of post-traumatic stress disorder, invites Jean to partake in a drink with him at his hotel bar. He explains to her that he has been invited to London for the purpose of speaking at a conference. Unbeknownst to anyone other than himself, Attila has taken a secret mission upon himself. He plans to locate the daughter of two of his old friends, “whose habit it was to call every Sunday upon their return from church.” Having known the girl since babyhood and regarding her as a niece, Attila intends to inquire about her current location, as well as the reasoning for the discontinuation of Sunday phone calls.
Embarking on a stakeout of sorts, Atilla soon discovers that his niece was rounded up by immigration services. Finding her within a hospital, it is soon discovered that her son has gone missing, causing Atilla to reconsider how he shall proceed.
With the third time begin the charm, one last coincidental meeting occurs between Attila and Jean. Where Attila entrusts Jean with the information about his niece, Ama. Jean, a divorcee, an American resident of London, and a wildlife biologist who spends her time researching the foxes that live within the city, volunteers her services to help track down Ama’s missing son.
Ushering forth the need for a creative band of misfits, Jean enlists her team of wildlife sightseers, followed shortly after by anyone possessing specific connections to the London streets. Through the strength of a developing friendship between Atilla and Jean, alongside the many connections that they have, a psychologist and biologist set out into a city of eight million people to locate a lost boy.
Happiness is a book rooted in connection, connection between characters, as well as connection between today’s society and former societies that have been long thought dead. Aminatta Forna disguises these connections to her characters under the guise of coincidence, while periodically sharing the personal roots of her story to her readers, in the form of flashback chapters. This mystery can inevitably only be uncovered by the two characters specifically crafted by the author to not believe in coincidences, citing that “coincidences are out of the ordinary, coincidences happen far too often to be considered extraordinary.”
Although it is no stranger to convolution, Forna managed to create a novel that is genuine in its approach. The book possesses an overarching sense of good, a feeling that the world and the people that live within in it have been trying to recapture for some time. It asks all the correct questions, regarding failures within governmental systems, the intimacy of mourning, and the human condition itself.
Forna’s story is one of flaws and is universal in its nature. The past and present coexist as synonymously as the humans and animals that the author means to explore. Readers, as humans, cannot help but feel concern for the characters within the story due to the innate accessibility to project their everyday struggles onto them. This is the greatest success of Aminatta Forna and Happiness, convincing readers that the specific humane lifestyle portrayed throughout the novel is only possible through the books aptly named title.