Happy Creatures by Angela Vallvey trans Margaret Jull Costa

The pursuit of happiness
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The Independent Culture

Penelope is a successful fashion designer, Ulysses her abandoned artist husband suffering from artist's block. At the beginning of Happy Creatures, the Spanish writer Angela Vallvey's second novel to be translated into English, Penelope has been away for two years. She abandoned Ulysses because he was a serial adulterer. She abandoned their baby son Telemachus too, to teach Ulysses a lesson. In the time she has been away she has made herself blonde, thin and successful, and now wants her baby back. But does she want Ulysses?

Meanwhile, in her father's academy, several slightly cracked characters gather to discuss the nature of happiness: a woman with two husbands; a gay man trying to come to terms with his Catholic mother's disgust at his and his partner's decision to father a child with a surrogate child; and so on.

Vallvey is an award-winning poet and a prolific writer of books for children, and won the Nadal prize in Spain for Happy Creatures. Her previous work, Hunting the Last Wild Man, propelled her into the bestseller lists of several countries and earnt her well-deserved praise for her sarcastic, Almodóvar-like portrayal of a Spanish working-class house-hold consisting of five picturesque sisters, a wacky grandmother, an all-forgiving mother and a bitter prune of an aunt.

Vallvey's voice is unique and her work refreshing. She portrays a postmodern Spain where all the values of the 20th century have collapsed: the family is finished, feminism is dead, the sexual revolution a fiasco, middle-class-ness and even comfortable wealth are not the hot tickets to happiness, and people no longer believe in the ideology of self-fulfilment. This rather despondent perception of contemporary life is presented in comic terms. To achieve this, she contrasts high culture with pop culture.

Each chapter is headed by a quotation from an ancient philosopher and followed by a scene that enacts the idea expressed in it. Thus chapter one opens with Aristotle's "The prudent man aspires not to pleasure, but to the absence of pain", and we are introduced to a stoic Ulysses on his way to a seminar at the academy of his father-in-law.

The cleverness of the author's ploy lies in the surprising juxtaposition of august philosophical statements with cartoonish, even kitsch, depictions of life's dilemmas. Later in the book, the students of the academy propose that the Catholic mother might be persuaded to accept her gay son's family set-up if she was made to see that the Virgin Mary was really a single mother who had God's son through artificial insemination. The novel satirises self-help books, although it also wants to be a guide to "how to be happy by realising happiness is a construct and therefore unattainable". This is the self-conscious hybrid child of ChickLit and pocket philosophy handbooks.

Happy Creatures reads as if the author was unable to decide whether she wanted to write a collection of short stories about happiness, or an unconventional romance starring a modern Ulysses and Penelope. As it is, Vili's students' stories about their pursuits of happiness do not gel into coherence, and Ulysses' and Penelope's love story lacks life. Whereas in Hunting for the Last Wild Man Vallvey portrayed faulty, failing characters, in Happy Creatures all the main characters are stupefyingly wealthy, talented and good-looking.

Happy Creatures is a good novel in its conception: original, daring, profound and contemporary. But, somehow, it seems to have lost sight of itself in the Odyssean journey towards publication. It would have benefited from a few more years wandering around the Aegean.

Amaia Gabantxo is a writer and translator of Basque literature who teaches at the University of East Anglia