book review: Happiness by Aminatta Forna


HAPPINESS by Aminatta Forna
Atlantic Monthly Press, March 6, 2018

I’m so conflicted about Happiness. I think there’s a really extraordinary novel in here – I just think it occasionally gets too caught up in its meandering structure, and loses focus too often. At its best, it’s striking and thought-provoking; at its worst, it’s a slog.

Happiness is a quiet, contemplative novel that meditates on themes like trauma, cultural differences, the relationship between humans and animals, and what it means to be happy. The novel begins with a chance encounter between two expats in London, an American woman named Jean and a Ghanaian man named Attila. It takes place over the course of about a week (though it feels much longer), and it follows each of their narratives as they weave in and out of each other’s lives.

I’ve seen this compared to Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day, but it actually reminds me more of The Unconsoled. Not the whole Kafkaesque element, but one thing that struck me was how Jean and Attila kept encountering minor characters, getting caught up in their drama, and getting derailed from their main story – reminiscent of Ishiguro’s character Ryder (not to mention that Attila and Ryder are both meant to be preparing for exhibitions of sorts – a psychology lecture for one and a piano recital for the other). But anyway, these proverbial rabbit holes that they go down feel less like subplots than they do side-quests, and as a reader I couldn’t help but to go through Happiness with a touch of impatience, waiting for the narrative to regain focus. This not-quite-linear structure is deliberate, but it didn’t completely work for me.

I thought Forna’s prose was really excellent, and I highlighted so many passages on my Kindle that I found striking. But I also couldn’t wait to be done with this after a while. While it’s certainly a unique novel that has a lot to offer, I just wish it had been subjected to more rigorous editing. Maybe that’s just a personal preference, though. Recommended if you’re in the mood for something thoughtful and character-driven, that ultimately examines the role of trauma in shaping our lives.

Thank you to Netgalley, Atlantic Monthly Press, and Aminatta Forna for the advanced copy provided in exchange for an honest review.