Forna’s fourth novel takes place in 2014 London and involves love, loss and urban foxes.

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Book review

“Happiness”

by Aminatta Forna

Atlantic Monthly Press, 309 pp., $26

In her absorbing fourth novel, Aminatta Forna arrives at the meaning of the book’s title, but not in ways you might expect. The story begins like a taut mystery and morphs into a romance between two tentative lovers, beset by loss.

The action takes place over 10 days in London in the spring of 2014. Attila is a psychiatrist from Ghana, in London to deliver the keynote address at a conference about post-traumatic stress disorder. He is an authority on civilian trauma suffered in war and often appears in court as an expert witness on PTSD. He is also preoccupied with personal tragedies — the death of his wife some years earlier and the dementia and decline of a former lover, now living in a care facility in London. These experiences have given him fresh insight into human nature.

Jean is an American researcher, divorced, in London to study urban foxes, which have proliferated over the past few decades. (The fox population in London is estimated at several thousand.) She also designs landscapes for rooftop gardens in the city. A civic debate is raging over what to do about the foxes — the mayor has called for a “culling,” a euphemism for hunting and killing — and Jean finds herself at the center of the controversy, appearing on radio talk shows and becoming a target of Twitter trolls.

Jean literally runs into Attila on the street during an evening jog and a few days later helps him look for a family friend’s 10-year-old son, who has run away after his mother was detained over her immigration status. Joining their picaresque search for the boy are Attila’s acquaintances from several visits to London and Jean’s team of volunteer “informants” who help her track and observe foxes around town.

Attila and Jean’s personal stories unspool and interweave, separate and mesh again. Flashback chapters reveal their past lives. They are drawn to each other.

More than leitmotif, the natural world is omnipresent in the big city, and it frames and informs the lives of the novel’s characters. Foxes, parakeets, falcons, owls and a seal inhabit the story. The author deftly implies that the elusive foxes mirror the emotions of the human lovers.

Forna’s prose is precise and often stunning in its clarity. Attila asks directions from “a young man with pellucid eyes, moonscape skin and an Adam’s apple that threatened to break through the surface of his neck like a shark’s fin through still water.”

She lets loose in the last quarter of the novel when the narrative becomes more dreamy and allegorical. Attila meditates, for instance, on the part suffering plays in true happiness. “How do we become human except in the face of adversity?” Attila asks during one informal debate among conference colleagues.

Most memorable is Forna’s deep dive into attraction between the sexes. The couple’s budding romance plays out like an intricate mating ritual with Jean as the pursuer. Trauma is not disabling; if anything it strengthens their growing bond. “The reckless open their eyes and topple into love, as do dreamers, who fly in their dreams without fear or danger,” Forna writes. “Those who know that all love must end in loss do not fall but rather cross slowly from the not knowing into the knowing.”

This book starts slowly and deliberately, but burns brightly when it matters most.

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Aminatta Forna will speak at 7 p.m. Wednesday, March 21, at Seattle Public Library’s Central Library, 1000 Fourth Ave., Seattle; free, 206-386-4636, spl.org.