This was one of those books that I enjoyed, but that felt somewhat vague. Reading it was more like experiencing the impression of a story, rather than the story itself. Sometimes it was beautiful and sometimes it was boring.
I often struggle to summarize the plots of novels in my reviews: it seems important to write at least a little bit about what happens, but so often plots feel bigger than anything that can be easily contained in a paragraph. In Happiness, though, the plot is easily summarized: A Ghanaian doctor who studies trauma and an American wildlife biologist who studies urban foxes meet by chance in London. Other things happen in the book, of course. But that’s the heart of it: a chance meeting between two people, both with somewhat unusual careers to which they are very attached.
The whole novel felt like one long meander, a sort of glide through two people’s minds and lives, without any clear purpose or destination. It’s hard to pinpoint what the book was about, although I could easily list off many things it was about: trauma, grief, cultural identity, loneliness, immigration, the bizarre twists and turns of urban life, the conflict between nature and everything that is not nature, coincidence, the surprising communities (both human and non-human) that arise in a city’s liminal spaces.
Yes, it was about all of those things, but the whole book felt very loose. I liked the ending, and the writing was often very beautiful, but as I was reading, I would often find myself glancing up at the page number, thinking: “Huh. Page 212. I wonder when something is going to happen?” It felt like I spent the entire book waiting for the book to start. I’ve been thinking about this book for days, trying to determine where this feeling came from, because things did happen. I’m still not sure. Was it because there were so many different storylines? Was it because of the constantly switching POVs? (The book was mostly told from the two main characters POVs but dipped into various others as well.) Was it because the whole novel was so understated? Or because it was made up of lots of small events, but seemed to lack tension?
I don’t know. I was fascinated by both main characters. Attila and Jean were interesting people with backstories that informed their present. I found them both likable, but not in a boring way. I was fascinated by Attila’s studies regarding trauma in immigrant and refuge populations, and by Jean’s studies of urban foxes and coyotes. I was fascinated by the culture of working class, largely immigrant London that Forna explores in the book, the doormen and dishwashers and drivers. I was fascinated with all of it, but there was something in the structure of the book, and in the writing itself, that kept the characters and their lives at a certain remove. Here were two people, over the course of a week, thinking about what had brought them to now, what mattered, where they were going. Interesting, but rambling. It felt more like a meditation than a novel, more like a character study than a story.
Like a dream, Happiness was fascinating, but the heart of it dangled just out of my reach. I couldn’t quite sink into it, and then it was over.