Weighty and fragile, handled with care

  • Happiness Atlantic Monthly

Washington Post
Friday, March 09, 2018

Aminatta Forna’s exquisite 2013 novel The Hired Man opened with a hunter on a Croatian hillside training his sights on a stranger’s car. The silence of early morning, the stillness of the watcher, both were palpable on the page, and a similarly arresting scene draws us into Forna’s new novel Happiness:

“Spring snow, still, porcelain bowls in the hollows of the earth. Blue hour, the outlines of pine trees and houses stood against a deepening sky. The wolfer gazed upon the lights of the town.”

In Massachusetts in 1834, a journeyman hunter is hired to kill a marauding wolf, and the small drama that ensues is a marvel of compression. In just seven pages, Forna evokes a distant time, a timeless land, a stalker and his prey.

Killing done, the prologue closes, but its force seems to echo – this is one of Forna’s mysterious skills – as the narrative shifts to London in 2014: “People walked unswervingly, armed with bags, defended by earphones, looking neither to right nor left.” A fox weaves its way through this rush-hour crowd. Attila, a psychiatrist from Ghana, visiting for a conference, pauses on Waterloo Bridge, causing a runner to collide with him. The woman apologizes and continues on. A few hours earlier, just a few miles away, a nursing home worker wheels his patients outside. “By 10.30, eight old folks were parked against the brickwork. ... Eyes closed as if with the reverence of prayer, faces turned to the sun, they might have been believers awaiting the appearance of their god.” The aide will be fired.

In these few scenes, Forna sets her key characters in motion, connecting them first by chance and ultimately by love. The novel’s title is Happiness, after all. But 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.

Traveling elliptically between past and present, it crosses continents and weaves together lives that intersect years later in London over the course of just 10 days. Each intermittent episode seems to materialize as memories do, with sharp and fragile immediacy. In the war zones of Bosnia, Sierra Leone and Iraq, Attila works as a trauma specialist and hostage negotiator. Again and again, dread saturates the page. “At the Massiaka checkpoint,” she writes, “a man was sitting on a huge boulder at the side of the road. He was dressed in combat trousers, boots and a black T-shirt, an automatic weapon lay across his knee, he was surrounded by henchmen.”