‘Happiness’ by Aminatta Forna – Tracking the London Foxes


‘Happiness’ by Aminatta Forna   (2018) – 312 pages

I was very much anticipating reading ‘Happiness’ by Aminatta Forna after reading her excellent previous novel ‘The Hired Man’, and now after finishing ‘Happiness’ I can say that it has even exceeded those high expectations.  ‘Happiness’ is my favorite novel that I have read so far this year.

I defy anyone to read the first eight pages and not continue reading ‘Happiness’.  They are that good.  These pages about a wolf hunter in Massachusetts in 1834 are only peripherally related to the rest of the story, but they do set the stage.

The main story takes place in today’s London, especially on the streets of London, where the two main characters literally collide when they first meet each other.  The two characters, Jean and Attila, are both middle-aged; both have been married before but are single now.

The woman Jean is from Massachusetts but she is currently living by herself in London studying urban foxes.  Now that England has banned fox hunting, many foxes have taken to living on the streets of London, surviving to some extent on the food waste that is thrown away. Her passion for these urban foxes keeps Jean searching for them on the streets, and we get a street-level view of the city.  She has a network of volunteers to help her track the foxes.

The man Attila is a renowned psychiatrist from Accra, Ghana who aside from his regular work must also deal with immigration crises that arise for other Africans living in London. When a young Ghanaian woman gets swept up in an immigration crackdown, her young son goes missing.  By this time Jean and Attila are beginning their friendship, and Jean employs her network of fox watchers to help find the boy.

The gradual emerging of a close relationship between Jean and Attila is the centerpiece of this novel.  Its theme can perhaps be best stated by the following lines:

 “The reckless open their arms & topple into love, as do dreamers who fly in their dreams without fear or danger. Those who know that all love must end in loss do not fall but rather cross slowly from the not knowing into the knowing.”

Aminatta Forna writes her story in a clear, direct, and straightforward manner without resorting to any flamboyant language or tricks.  By capturing more than just what is happening on the surface, she achieves a depth that is missing from many novels.  She delves into several subtle subjects such as the starkness of nature and humans’ natural resilience to tragedy.

“What if by labeling our patients damaged from the outset, we not only condemn them to a self-fulfilling prophecy, but have overlooked a finding of equal importance? That the emotional vulnerability of trauma is oftentimes transformed into strength.  What if we were to have revealed to us that misfortune can lend life quality? Whatever does not kill me makes me stronger, yes. What if I told you that there are times when whatever does not kill me can make me more, not less, than the person I was before?”

Also Forna takes up a not new idea that is similar to one that has been intriguing me lately, hers being that we humans, like those urban foxes, are just as much a part of nature.

In my review of ‘The Hired Man’, I compared the writing of Aminatta Forna to that of Kazuo Ishiguro, and I still believe that comparison holds.

The best fiction excites and exhilarates us up to a place we have never been before, and ‘Happiness’ definitely did that for me.


Grade:   A+ 


8 responses to this post.

  1. This sounds wonderful. Just my sort of book!

    Liked by 1 person


  2. I have to catch up with Forna. I have The Hired Man, I must read it soon before she writes another one and then I will never catch up!

    Liked by 1 person


    • Hi Lisa,
      Yes, some of these writers are terribly quick at releasing their next book and their next. 🙂
      Forna’s earlier novel ‘The Memory of Love’ was shortlisted for the Orange Prize, so at some point I want to go back and read that one too.



  3. It sounds very interesting, though it sounds also a bit odd to link the fox hunting ban with urban foxes. I think there’s been urban foxes for as long as I’ve been alive, I’m not sure there’s any link particularly with the ban.

    Still, possibly a rather irrelevant point and it does sound interesting.



    • The character in Forna’s novel apparently thinks that the increase in London foxes is due to the fox hunting ban. She is talking about the highly urban areas. The novel made it sound that now there are so many urban foxes that they have become a nuisance for many. I hadn’t heard of foxes in the city before, but I will take your word for it.



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