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A. M. Homes: May We Be Forgiven

Homes has always had a reputation for black humour and of not shying away from the controversial and, in this novel, she lives up to both. Harold Silver is a not particularly successful college history lecturer, specialising in Richard Nixon. He is married to a Claire, a successful Chinese-American. We are never quite clear what she is successful at, but she seems to have a high-powered career. The couple live in an apartment and have no children. Harold has a brother, George, who is eleven months younger (though people seem to think that he is older). George has always been a bully and does not seem to be well-liked. However, he is a very successful TV executive (he has a dozen-plus Emmys). He is married to Jane and they have two children, Nathanael, aged twelve, and Ashley, aged eleven. Both children are at boarding school.

The problem starts at Thanksgiving when there seems to be some sexual frisson between Jane and Harold. One evening, Harold gets a phone call from Jane. George is at a police station and she is not sure why – and could Harold go and see what the problem is. The problem turns out to be that George has run a red light, hit a minivan and killed the couple in the front of the vehicle, though their son in the back was spared. There is no evidence that George has been drinking or using drugs. George, not surprisingly, seems somewhat disoriented but is released and Harold takes him home. The next day, he takes George to the hospital. Claire is in China on business, so he stays at Jane’s and, inevitably, they end up in bed. When George gets out of hospital – it is not clear whether he has been released or has released himself – he comes home in the early hours of the morning to find his wife in bed with his brother. He smashes a lamp over Jane’s head, hits his brother and then goes downstairs, calmly awaiting the police. Jane is taken to hospital and dies soon afterwards. George is taken to an institution. And this is where the novel really starts.

Things have already started badly for Harold and get worse. Claire reads about what happened in the papers, including his fling with Jane and throws him out, so he moves in to George’s house which is now, of course, vacant. He loses his own job. He becomes surrogate father to Nathanael and Ashley, something he has no experience of. He has a stroke but Claire has cancelled his health insurance. He is frequently abused, not least because people mistake him for George. He turns to porn (there is a wonderfully funny scene where he is talking to George’s psychiatrist, trying to answer questions about their childhood, while also trying to download porn)and then gets sexually involved with a series of bored housewives. He has to deal with George’s family pets (a dog and a cat), something of which he also has no experience. But, the whole time Homes is mocking George and Harold, she is also brilliantly mocking everything else – US healthcare, the police, psychiatry, Judaism, the private school Nathanael attends, bored housewives, pets and people who own them, the legal profession, pampered children, the CIA, pedophilia and sexual abuse. There is little that escapes her razor wit and mockery.

It is hilarious fun but not all fun. She has a serious point to make. It’s become a kind of rite of passage: disgruntled employee returns and shoots boss, disgruntled wife kills kids, disgruntled husband wrecks car, kills strangers, and then kills wife. Hard not to be surprised, when the bulk of public conversation goes like this:”Paper or plastic?” The loss of the human touch scares me. Harold is our victim but also our hero and our homespun philosopher, observing and commenting on the American Way of Life, at least from his perspective. And if there is one thing that he does treat seriously, it is Richard Nixon. He continually thinks about Nixon – he is writing a book about him – compares Nixon and what he did to what is happening today and even manages to have a conversation with Julie Nixon Eisenhower. But, if there is a theme to the novel, it is about communication between people. She can and very much does make fun of Harold and his family and a whole host of US institutions but ultimately, it is clear that most of them have a problem with communications, even or perhaps, particularly, Richard Milhous Nixon. But, above all, you will enjoy this book for its sharp wit and mockery.

Publishing history

First published 2012 by Viking Penguin