Happiness: Aminatta Forna pulls the rug out, gently

The pervasive paradigm of the West is undermined by the sublime philosophy of Happiness, the novel.

To be more specific, the Western belief typified by the USA, UK, and their European counterparts, of what is required to be happy. It just so happens that these countries dominate the shift to corporatisation of their societies, and those they influence. They opt for control, containment, stasis. This is done as much through military, pharmaceutical and legislative spending as through the dissemination of a worldview. A view of what it is to be normal. Or, when it comes to the institutionalisation of thought: sane.

Aminatta Forna pulls the rug out from all of this. This normative shit.

She does so subtly, with much grace, so that the fall of accepted ideas becomes a ballet, a dance which sees performers who have taken up too much time and space judder and collapse in exhaustion as new, more compassionate characters take the floor. Characters who are familiar with change and use it to progress rather than treat it as something to fear.

Empathy flows strongly from Forna’s fingers. It is in every keystroke for it is within the author herself. Within a few pages I knew I was in safe, and expert, hands. I could trust her characters. They are good people who, because they have consideration for other people and those they love, make good decisions. This doesn’t mean they don’t, or haven’t, suffered. Arguably those who possess empathy suffer more. Point is, bad things do happen to good people. Bad relationships even. It is how we deal with suffering (and suffering, although relative, is inevitable) that dictates whether we are damaged or not.

This question of suffering, brought about by trauma, and whether we harness the resultant change it brings about to positive or negative effect, is brought to its conclusion when Attila – one of two main characters whose intersecting worlds produce the story – delivers his lecture at a psychiatric conference in London. We’re introduced to this fact early on, and he end up rewriting it the day he’s scheduled to speak. So in essence it forms a plot. Almost a story of scholarly suspense if one were to be reductionist. But Forna spins a web too delicate for reduction. So entrancing were the layers of this novel that I forgot the reason he was in London was to deliver an academic paper. It crept up on me through all the alluring tangential stories involving other characters, both major and minor, particularly those in Attila’s life, all of whom serve the essential hypothesis Forna delivers through him. She creates an enchanting wood in which many sights are seen on the way home. I was going to write ‘on the way to the fair’, but  where Forna’s writing takes you is not an over-saturated place of contesting attractions. It is a place of contemplation, realisation, and affirmation, in the sense that she affirms what it is to be human. To be real. To have integrity, even if it is hard won, or was once lost.

She affirms the need for relationships. Not necessarily of the romantic kind, although that too, but that is only one of the many points of connectedness we need – not so much to be happy – but to have resilience. The results of what happens when those points of connectedness, of community, reject us, especially when the rejection is due to the most superficial of reasons – such as race – is illustrated in a case of PTSD Attilla is tasked to review. This same case, combined with his own suffering, also leads to his breakthrough. His homecoming.

The other protagonist, Jean, approaches the same homecoming – one could call it epiphany if an epiphany could have a slow dawn – but via a very different route. Which simply underscores the fact that circumstances are merely that: circumstantial. Everybody’s scenery is different. And the elements within the scenery Attilla and Jean choose to value, are the things largely overlooked. Such as foxes, or birds. Abandoned yards and the urban edges. And the people who inhabit these in-between spaces that those who can afford to mostly prefer not to see. Beneath bridges. Benches beside the river or paths in the cemetery. The place where refuse bins are kept; outside the back door of the hotel kitchen. Who would go there but an immigrant dishwasher for a 2am cigarette. The bin men of course – in and out. Or a scared child whose mother has been hauled off by authorities, desperate for something to eat.

The overlooked. Forna gives them space to breath in the world between her words.

It is a hopeful place to be.

Happiness, Aminatta Forna’s latest novel, is published by Bloomsbury. Forna will be appearing at the Open Book Festival which takes place in Cape Town from 5 to 9 September.

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