“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.” The gunman is one of Attila’s former patients, and the checkpoint is “a door between worlds, where a great many people disappeared.”
Nine years later, in the London nursing home, Attila watches his first love fade into dementia: “Rosie stared at her hand in Attila’s, as though she had never seen such a sight, was making of it what she could.” Yet even here — particularly here — Forna’s plain descriptions have the force of revelation. After a dance in the day room, for example, the nurses applaud, joined by “several of the residents who raised their trembling hands and with great concentration put them slowly, soundlessly together.”
Throughout “Happiness,” Forna stops us in our tracks this way, with the emotional weight of an image or the seductive rhythm of a sentence.
Reminiscent at times of Michael Ondaatje’s novel “Anil’s Ghost,” whose protagonist, like Attila, sifts through the aftermath of war, “Happiness” is a meditation on grand themes: Love and death, man and nature, cruelty and mercy. But Forna folds this weighty matter into her buoyant creation with a sublimely delicate touch.
“Attila had been witness to many deaths,” she writes as his lover fades, “that moment when a still and silent presence entered the room, revealed only by a change in the air, a knowledge never to be unknown . . . . In a refugee camp in Sudan, a mother tucks a doll made of two crossed sticks into the arms of her dead child . . . . In the now silent room the knowledge formed itself into a fourth presence.”
Anna Mundow is a freelance journalist and reviewer in Central Massachusetts.
By Aminatta Forna
Atlantic Monthly. 312 pp. $26