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book report

Aminatta Forna seeks to offer a different way of seeing London and any large city by inverting the reader’s gaze in Happiness.

Aminatta Forna is particularly adept at writing the politics of life, as demonstrated in her memoir, The Devil That Danced on the Water, and novels Ancestor Stones, The Memory of Love and The Hired Man. The Scottish and Sierra Leonean writer's latest novel is Happiness, about an encounter between a Ghanaian psychiatrist and an American biologist studying urban foxes. It is also a story about contemporary London. Forna is currently Lannan Visiting Chair of Poetics at Georgetown University.

London is more than a setting in this novel. Was there a face of the city you wanted to reflect?

London is my home and has been for 30 years. In that time, the city has changed immeasurably. Ten or so years ago, immigrants from West Africa arrived and took up residence in South East London, near where I live. Gradually, I became surrounded by things that were familiar to me: language, groceries, churches and mosques. Whenever I travel, I am aware, especially in the United States, of the presence of West Africans. Often, they go out of their way to talk to me, bring me a tray of food after the hotel kitchens have closed, hail me a cab. There's a recognition and a resulting camaraderie that exists. In any city, you find those impromptu networks created by people who are strangers.

Another world, visible only to those who know it, is that of urban animals. When I first went to London, I didn't notice the foxes – now, I see them everywhere. The London foxes more or less hide in plain sight, because people are preoccupied with their own lives. In Happiness, I wanted to offer a different way of seeing London, of any large city. I wanted to pull all those worlds from the background to the foreground, to invert the reader's gaze.

Happiness brings psychiatry in contact with urban biology. How do these topics relate?

Did you know that one of the measures psychiatrists use to try to predict future criminal behaviour in sociopathic youngsters is evidence of cruelty to animals? When I read that, it struck me that you could probably tell a lot about a society by looking at its relationship to animals. Some years ago, John Freeman, then editor of Granta, commissioned an essay from me called The Last Vet, about the street dogs of Freetown. In it, I told the story of a standoff between the city authorities and the local people led by the country's lone vet. The former wanted to exterminate the dogs, the latter to save them. I wanted to think about human-animal relationships in the Western world, what they tell us about the values of those societies. In a large and diverse city like London, where people have so many different reasons for being, an encounter such as the one between Attila and Jean seemed entirely possible. By juxtaposing their stories I hoped to evince the same questions in readers that I find myself contemplating.

Five of your characters go for a day trip outside London. No one is related, but it feels like a family outing. Why?

I guess, because I moved a lot as a child and my family live all over the world (in China, Sierra Leone, New Zealand and America, where I now live), I'm very used to making connections with people who aren't related to me by blood.

Many people migrate to cities from other parts of the country or other countries, are away from their families and so they do the same. This is one of the things I love about cities: People create bonds of humanity, not blood.

Was there a moment in your research when you realized a piece of the novel had fallen into place?

One theme of the book is trauma and resilience. When I realized that foxes and coyotes grew stronger through adversity, I knew that part of the story worked on an allegorical as well as a narrative level.

Happiness touches on the theme of civil conflict, a subject you've written about before. Why return to this theme?

The degree of personal betrayal involved in a civil conflict gives it a special horror. How do you trust people again? Yet, as the years have gone by, I have watched people in Sierra Leone effect a remarkable act of forgiveness.

There are social and political reasons for this, but also a certain philosophy of life, which fosters understanding and, thereby, resilience. This has led me to reflect on how we approach trauma in the West, where the meaning of the word seems to have stretched to cover all negative experiences and where we have conditioned ourselves into thinking that if bad things happen, we will be irrevocably damaged by them and thus never find happiness.

A few years ago, you published an essay titled "Where Are the West's Political Novelists?" Do you still ask this question?

Recent political events have produced a great deal of soul searching on the part of American novelists. I think we are going to see the rise of a new American political novel in the next few years.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

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