She calls it “reversing the gaze”. After a lifetime reading books or watching films set in African countries but written by westerners – “the white man usually has a hard time and then flees,” she jokes – Aminatta Forna decided a reckoning was in order.
So in Happiness, her superb fourth novel, a Ghanaian psychiatrist named Attila comes to London. Through his perceptive eyes we observe an entire British culture, value system and people.
“It was about asking westerners in particular to think about the way they live and treat each other. I just wanted to take Attila for a walk in London,” Forna says.
It’s quite a walk, which begins with Attila bumping into an American biologist, Jean, studying urban foxes. When they come across each other again, their nascent friendship leads Jean to commission her network of spotters to help Attila find his niece’s son, who has fled from an immigration crackdown.
It’s a story of loss and resilience, of love and coexistence – and most obviously of connection, as the immigrant community working the streets and hotels come together in small moments of shared understanding.
Early in the book, Attila shares a nod with another black man in a restaurant – a small gesture that signifies so much.
“Ah, the nod,” Forna says. “A white friend of mine recently told me that it had taken him 10 years to figure it out. But this is something that black people do all the time.
“When I went to work at Georgetown University, everyone of African descent – a janitor, a lab assistant or a head of department – would all give me this quick acknowledgment and I’ve always been amazed that white people didn’t know about it. It’s about recognition, it’s about saying, ‘I see you, we’re in this together, I’ve still got your back’.”
And the nod also sets up the relationships Attila develops with the people who come together to help find Tano. The doorman of the expensive hotel in which Attila is staying simply says, "that could be my son", and a real achievement of Happiness is that it properly depicts how a city becomes a migratory focal point.
“It’s the proximity of everything that is so interesting in London,” she says. “The most powerful live next to those with no rights. Immigrants work in the places where people who rule the whole country live their lives. Richest and poorest, animals and humans, side by side.”
And in this novel of juxtapositions, there is also grief and happiness. Forna has long been interested in trauma and its effects. Born in Scotland and raised in Sierra Leone, Iran, Thailand and Zambia, her memoir The Devil that Danced on the Water explores the aftermath of her dissident father's killing by Sierra Leone's state secret police when she was 10 years old.
In Happiness, Attila is a psychiatrist who questions the idea that adverse experiences make you less of a person. It transpires that he is dealing with his own grief but is able to analyse his emotions rather than be overcome by them.
“There is a debate in the profession about whether the loss of a partner or a job is really a long term trauma and whether we are pathologising experiences which we may go through at some point in our lives,” Forna says.
“Life is not perfect and things happen, but we’ve become over protective and fearful of adversity because of what it might lead to. We need to approach life with a bit more fortitude. Personally, I don’t know how you become fully human unless you have faced adversity.”
And Happiness, as the title suggests, does ask what it means to be happy. Not in a gleeful, childlike way but the more profound, adult state of being.
Attila finds happiness in small, quiet victories over the course of the book. But significantly, he doesn’t go searching for them.
“Attila knows that there’s a nostalgia for childhood joy which can’t be got back,” Forna says. “It’s not achievable in adult life because you’ve seen and learnt too much. It’s a strange, western concept, happiness.
“I can’t think of anything specific that makes me happy right now, but I can think of things that give me joy and pleasure, like food.”
Happiness is a pleasure to read. The characters ring true, depictions of London's underbelly achingly realistic.
The romantic side of the story is pleasingly unsentimental, too, but the overall impression is that Forna’s “reversed gaze” is a perfect guide to modern multicultural city life .
“If you’re part of a society that is considered successful you can be lazy in bothering to interrogate it,” she says. “In my time in America, the thing I’ve really noticed is that they never look outside their own country for a solution. Do they not look at the rest of the world and consider why they don’t have school shootings?
“And Britain is guilty of that too. It ruled half the world but has never really begun to think there are ways of being that it could learn from. I think most people would find the thought that Britain could learn anything from Africa absolutely astonishing. But that possibility is always there.”
Happiness (Bloomsbury) is out now