Happiness is definitely a London novel. The city is as much a character in the book as the two main protagonists around whom the plot resolves. Attila is a recently widowed, Ghanaian psychiatrist, visiting London to present a paper about trauma at an academic conference. Jean is a recently divorced American who is spending some time in London whilst conducting an extended study into urban foxes. The two, quite literally, bump into each other whilst crossing Waterloo Bridge and strike up a friendship which eventually becomes a relationship. As the novel progresses Jean helps Atilla search for his niece’s missing son, mobilising the network of volunteer fox-spotters she’s developed across inner city London. The people who populate this novel, like the foxes Jean tracks and the traumatised individuals Atilla has worked with in the wake of various conflicts, exist on the margins of society and yet are very much interdependent and reliant upon each other for survival. Forna is asking her readers to consider questions around co-existence and community.
Whilst in London Atilla also takes every opportunity to visit his former lover and lifelong research partner, Rosie who is living in a residential care facility. Rosie has developed early onset dementia and is increasingly incapable of recognising Atilla when he visits though she retains some motor memory of their physicality. Atilla is determined to find better care arrangements for Rosie. He’s concerned that the nursing home staff aren’t being as vigilant with her care as they could be. In Atilla’s absence, Emmanuel -the carer whom Rosie had been particularly close to- has been fired and she’s been unable to bond with anyone else. Atilla’s particularly concerned about Rosie’s loss of appetite and disinterest. She isn’t receiving much stimuli or attention in the home. He conspires to set her up in her own apartment where he will pay Emmanuel to be a live-in carer. This plan never comes to fruition as Rosie’s condition deteriorates quickly and she eventually dies. Forna’s depiction of dementia only takes up a small amount of the novel but it’s significant for its portrayal of how care staff are treated and the pressures they face within a residential care setting. On the whole it’s an accurate depiction of dementia : Rosie exhibits ongoing confusion, an inability to tend to her own physical needs and, by the novel’s conclusion has become occasionally violent. Forna intersperses these darker snapshots of the dementia experience with moments of genuine fondness and even levity between Atilla, Rosie and Emmanuel.
I thoroughly enjoyed Happiness. The metaphor of the fox community which runs throughout the novel exists as a perfectly drawn exploration of interdependence between all the living beings who call London home. These complex ideas of community, connection and dependence also exist in the care setting which Forna gives us a glimpse into
Happiness was published by Bloomsbury in 2018