Wednesday, 24 April 2019

Happiness by Aminatta Forna

Shortlisted for The Jhalak Prize
The Jhalak Prize for Book of the Year by a Writer of Colour, is an annual literary prize awarded to British or British-resident writers. It is the first and only literary prize in the UK to only accept entries by writers of colour.

Reviewer: Catriona Troth

What We Thought:

So many layers of complexity are woven into this story of two lives colliding (literally) on Waterloo Bridge.

Attila is a psychologist from Ghana specialising in trauma resulting from war. Jean is an American biologist who studies human interactions with wild animals. He is in London for a conference; she for a long-term study of urban foxes. Their first encounter, as they both hurry across the bridge, is barely registered by either of them, but then their paths cross again and again.

The core story takes place over a mere handful of days, but through shifting timelines, we see something of Attila’s work in war zones from Bosnia to Sierra Leone, and the three women has loved in his life. And behind Jean’s story lies the history of human response to encroaching predators, from wolves to coyotes to London’s growing population of foxes.

And then there is Tano, the runaway boy, and the army of mostly immigrant workers who comb the city to find him.

This is the London most of us never see. The London of street sweepers, security people, care workers, kitchen staff – those who work when the rest of the city sleeps, behind the elegant facades of theatres and hotels. It is beautifully evoked without being sentimentalised.

Along the way the novel takes on the brutality of the Hostile Environment and the failings of the care system. It challenges the Western notions of ‘normality’ that underpin psychologists’ assumptions about trauma and PTSD. And it questions our relationship with urbanised wild animals like coyotes and foxes.

Even the notion of happiness, captured in the title, is questioned, its place taken instead by the more enduring notion of hope.

One of only two novels to make it to the shortlist of the 2019 Jhalak Prize.


You’ll Enjoy This If You Loved: Kamila Shamsie, Esi Edugyan, Ruth Ozeki, Elif Shafak

Avoid If You Dislike: Descriptions of late-stage dementia

Perfect Accompaniment: Suya (Nigerian kebabs) and a rumba in the background

Genre: Literary Fiction



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