A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.
May We Be Forgiven, A. M. Homes’s Women’s Prize for Fiction-winning sixth novel, opens with a horrific car crash, an affair, a murder, and a divorce. I won’t lie: by page 25 I was wondering how much more I could take. However, it settled down into a blackly comic personal journey for our protagonist, Harry Silver, a Nixon scholar who is left in charge of his brother’s house and children after the extraordinary events of the opening pages.
Over the course of a year Silver has to figure out how to manage two precocious pre-teens at prestigious boarding schools, a dog, a cat, a murderer-brother in secure hospital accommodation, and a mother in a home who has undergone some radical new therapy and has swiftly gone from being bedbound to remarried. He also has his own personal demons to conquer, not least his sudden compulsion for meeting strange women for lunch and sex. He also has a stroke, gets involved in a sting to trap an Israeli terrorist, and has to organise a Bar Mitzvah in a small African village named for his nephew, Nate. Then, if that wasn’t enough, he is entrusted with some hitherto unseen documents to do with his muse, Richard Nixon.
Nixon is an appropriate hero for Silver. Speaking to his assistant on the project, he explains:
“I am most interested in his personality and the ways in which his actions and reactions were of a particular era and culture – the era that built and defined the American Dream…he resigned when he was sixty years old, signalling the end of an era and perhaps the unacknowledged death of the dream, though some people feel it has just gone underground.”
In all the descriptions of this book that I have read I have found references to the distortion, or the subversion, of the American Dream, and it’s true: at the beginning of the novel we see a family go from Mom, Dad, and Two Kids to destruction within pages. Looking at it in that way, the American Dream has died along with several characters and two marriages. But if the American Dream is about life being “better and richer and fuller for everyone” (according to James Truslow Adams, who coined the phrase in 1931), then Harry Silver fulfils every quota of that, albeit in the most unconventional ways. At the end of the book we find ourselves only hopeful for his future; and we find him feeling much the same.
This book threw me. I thought I knew what was coming. Or if not what, exactly, then I thought I had a good idea of the sort of thing that awaited me. After I finished it I thought, briefly, that I was unsatisfied with the ending: what I had anticipated didn’t appear. On further reflection, though, the ending was precisely right. Was everything explained? No. Were some very odd events never properly tied up? Sure. But that’s life, isn’t it? And above all else, it seems to me that May We Be Forgiven is about life, what it can throw at you, and what you might well be capable of even if last year you never would have believed where you’ve ended up. What I, ultimately, took from it is this: life can be weird. But it’s not hopeless.
I’d heard of Homes before now, of course, but I had never read anything by her. And the best bit about discovering such a fantastic writer with her sixth novel? I have the previous five (not to mention short stories and a memoir) to immediately go and get my hands on. Consider me fully signed up to the A. M. Homes fanclub.
A. M. Homes, May We Be Forgiven (Granta Books: London, 2012), Paperback, ISBN 9781847083234, £8.99