Secrets of Happiness by Joan Silber - review by Miranda France

Miranda France

For Love or Money

Secrets of Happiness

By

Allen & Unwin 275pp £14.99 order from our bookshop
 

Despite the promise of the title, there are no easy answers here for those seeking a happy life. Some may be inferred, though, from the fact that the novel’s unhappiest characters are fixated on money – because they have either too much, or not enough. The happy ones have made a decision to make do with less. One of them finds inspiration in the inhabitants of Iceland: ‘The country voted twice not to bail out failed banks; they let the currency collapse. People decided to just be less prosperous.’ A whole country voting for less money is certainly a radical concept. Could more of us live with less?

Secrets of Happiness opens with a great line: ‘My father was on the road a lot when I was growing up, off to parts of Asia to oversee the cheap manufacture of ladies’ garments.’ Here, in a sentence, are the book’s themes: family, global business and the exploitation of low-paid workers. Six characters, all connected to each other in ways that are not immediately apparent, take it in turns to talk about some aspect of their lives that directly connects to these themes. First Ethan describes how he learned, via a paternity suit posted through the door, that his father (the one who tours garment factories) has been keeping a second family in another part of New York. On one of his travels this man brought back a Thai girlfriend, Nok, as well as a silk scarf for his wife. Now Nok has two teenage children and needs money.

The second story is told by one of these teenagers, Joe, who describes how he lent money to Veronica, an old girlfriend, and then, without explicitly demanding it, exacted sex from her when she didn’t repay the loan. Veronica’s husband, Schuyler, heir to a department store fortune, was

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