Forna is too subtle and knowing a writer to create a straightforward, let alone inspirational, narrative. The action here may revolve around Attila’s search in London for a relative’s runaway child — a pleasingly simple mystery — but the novel has a wider orbit ... Happiness is a meditation on grand themes: Love and death, man and nature, cruelty and mercy. But Forna folds this weighty matter into her buoyant creation with a sublimely delicate touch.
Happiness is, for the most part, a tightly focused two-hander. We warm to both of the main characters through their struggles and their solidarity in the present. However, Forna creates fuller portraits by intercutting her narrative with flashbacks of their pasts ... Happiness starts out as a novel about coincidence — chance encounters, twists of fate — and turns into one about coexistence: how to overcome intolerance, accept differences and live in harmony. What could have been a strident, speechifying polemic is instead a subtle, considered yet deeply resonant tale, one which sensitively and intelligently highlights connection over division and kindness over cruelty.
This is not simply a love story, but a wider portrait of the ricocheting manifestations and effects of love in its various stages, as well as a serious examination of connection and coexistence ... The novel’s perspective is that of the nonchalant outsider, possessing the generosity of vision afforded by distance and thus perfectly placed for the best view ... Sprawling yet composed, worldly yet intimate, it is a tender evocation of the kaleidoscopic nature of the urban wilderness, as well as a challenge to the imposed centrality of the human animal.
Happiness is a different kind of book [to The Devil That Danced on Water]—less dramatic, but with the delicacy and strength of a spider’s web. An understated but piercing narrative of great compassion, Happiness trades action for a thoughtful study of adaptability and the empathic bonds shared between humans and animals.
The story begins like a taut mystery and morphs into a romance between two tentative lovers, beset by loss ... More than leitmotif, the natural world is omnipresent in the big city, and it frames and informs the lives of the novel’s characters. Foxes, parakeets, falcons, owls and a seal inhabit the story. The author deftly implies that the elusive foxes mirror the emotions of the human lovers. Forna’s prose is precise and often stunning in its clarity ... This book starts slowly and deliberately, but burns brightly when it matters most.
Forna is a risk-taker, a writer who doesn’t hold back from tackling big themes, and Happiness is a sprawling forest of a novel, with many tracks and stories to follow ... The profusion of sub-plots, however carefully nested, might test the patience of some readers. But look more closely and you can see that Forna always lays a trail of pebbles, gleaming in the moonlight, that lead you back home — though not to any easy epiphanies or safe resolutions. Happiness is one of a handful of contemporary novels that take both the human condition and the animal condition seriously. Entering Forna’s sweeping universe transports you to a place that feels familiar, but also totally feral and full of surprises.
Intricately woven into this tangled web are both the history of urban wild animals and Atilla’s experience in war zones, as the story subtly shifts in and out of focus between the past and the present. If at times slightly diffuse, Forna’s novel is ultimately a mesmerizing tale studded with exquisite writing.
It is deceptively low-key, devoid of dramatic peaks, and filled with effortless, relaxed prose that begs you to curl up with a blanket and read it on a cold, rainy day. Then, out of nowhere, you realize it’s so much more — an ambitious and moving story with real heft, written by an accomplished artist ... As compared to the utter grace with which the author approaches these themes, her treatment of the novel’s immigration thread is less subtle. She uses allegory to deliver an important message, but the language in these passages is raw and, in some cases, less than artful. Nevertheless, her excoriation of those who treat immigrants with derision is welcome given the debates that now rage in Europe and the United States ... The flashback vignettes that feel like detours at the outset of the novel cascade gracefully into critical understandings of the characters and the themes of the book, making Happiness a story that is both hard to put down and impossible to forget.
While the story largely centers on the search for Tano and the relationship between Attila and Jean that ensues from that, Happiness also considers how indispensible people such as security guards and doormen typically remain in the background of city life. The doorman at Attila’s building, for example, along with his network of surrounding doormen, security guards, and street-sweepers, stay on the alert for Tano. As such, it is the overlooked who catalyze the seemingly Sisyphean search for the lost boy. Over the search’s span of two weeks, the narrative mines the tender feelings, as well as the tensions, between Attila and Jean. Their emotions are portrayed in such a way that it rouses sentiment rather than sentimentality ... Happiness takes quotidian societal problems like racism, illegal hunting, and faulty government and wreathes them with personal issues such as mourning the deaths of wives and past lovers, Aminatta Forna has given us a pertinent novel, one whose prose is fluid and dynamic.
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 ... 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.
...a comprehensive tale of love, prejudicial conflict, coexistence between man and nature, and the success we invite when we embrace good and bad experiences ... Happiness shows us why we must embrace coexistence and how this works in practice ... Forna reminds us that division and false assumptions are regressive. We need to move away from stereotypes and understand a people for all of their varied experiences ... Although she is Scottish and Sierra Leonean, Forna is able to render Jean, a white American biologist, and Attila, a Ghanaian psychologist, flawlessly. She captures Jean’s painful loneliness of a mother distanced from her son, both literally and figuratively ... By the end of Happiness, coexistence moves beyond the literal sense of the word.
The real joy of the novel is in its portrait of London and its inhabitants. Forna’s voice is relentlessly compelling, her ability to summon atmosphere extraordinary, her sympathetic portrayal of traffic wardens, street performers, security guards, hotel doormen a thing of lasting beauty ... Happiness asks us to think about the interconnectedness of lives both human and animal, about what we choose to see and ignore as we move through the city, about the power of small acts of decency. In Attila and Jean, Forna has created two memorable characters; in her portrayal of London, she has achieved something more remarkable – a vision of the city so vivid and multilayered that it becomes the novel’s central figure.
At its weakest, Happiness devolves into a stern lecture, delivered through Attila, arguing that our avoidance of discomfort has become a pathology, one that supports an ever-expanding therapeutic industry ... Yet Forna’s finely structured novel powerfully succeeds on a more intimate scale as its humane characters try to navigate scorching everyday cruelties.
I’ll state flat-out that I don’t think this novel means to create a revolution ... Forna allows similar ripples in the scrim between worlds (in moments like the above and also in longer, italicized chapters set in different eras and locales) providing surprises of a poetic and uncanny nature ... As Attila and Jean subtly flirt, I found myself thinking, 'Uh, hello people, the missing kid?' The novel might have benefited from the mother’s point of view, which would have provided a sense of immediacy and panic ... Happiness’s globalist worldview will reassure its readership—its heroes are the American expat, the doctor without borders, a plucky group of runaway-finding immigrants, and a skulk of scrappy, charmingly-named foxes using strategies of assimilation and camouflage to make a life for themselves in a world they never made ... With their creaturely assistance, Forna writes into the space between human / nature, a space where the novel shudders out of convention to reveal something wild.
The occasional bit of awkward dialogue and a convoluted plot will strain some readers’ patience. Despite a reliance on coincidence to drive her narrative, Forna’s gift for characterization allows her to ask genuine, practical questions about the delicate problems of the human condition in this ambitious novel.