A gritty yet touching exploration of damaged family life.
Sibling rivalry comes to a head in the most shocking of ways in A. M. Homes’ award-winning May We Be Forgiven. Following an unusual and outrageous family tragedy, 40-something Harry Silver’s world is radically changed. Normality is blown apart and absolution is sought in this unashamedly realistic portrayal of unconventional modern family life.
The book opens at a family Thanksgiving dinner. George, a successful TV executive with a beautiful wife and two children, and his brother Harry, a childless struggling history professor, have always been at war with one another. George is seemingly living ‘The American Dream’ while Harry, the older brother, lives constantly in his shadow – even lusting after George’s wife from afar. However, almost immediately, a series of unusual and tragic events occur which drastically alter both of their lives forever. Written from Harry’s perspective, we follow the trajectory of his life over the course of a year, after the dramatic events following that Thanksgiving dinner. His life is rebuilt and enlightened through newfound responsibilities and unexpected human connections.
The writing style of this novel is both sharp and distinctive. Packed full of wit, gritty realism and black comedy, the resulting story is both laugh-out-loud funny and a brilliantly unreserved portrayal of a life less ordinary. Additionally, the notable absence of chapters creates a real sense of time passing continuously over the course of a year. However, this lack of chapters as well as the occasionally erratic scene changes made the reading experience hard going at times. Despite this, the snappy dialogue and direct narrative make for a fast-paced and punchy read that holds your attention throughout.
In Harry, Homes has skilfully and realistically characterised a man in flux. When we first meet him he is little more than a bystander to his brother’s life, a detached and somewhat unlikeable character. However, the tragedy forces him to take control of his life and become a better person for those also affected. Harry develops into a warm, generous and responsible man whom you genuinely empathise with towards the end of the book. As a result of the first person narrative, the reader is able to gain a deeper insight into this transition; combined with the writing style, the novel almost feels like a stream of Harry’s consciousness. However, this style of narrative unfortunately means that the characterisation of George and his children – Nate and Ashley – suffers. Because the tragedy at the beginning of the book affects them all so profoundly, it would have been interesting to have had more insight into their thoughts and emotions. Additionally, there were times when Ashley and Nate were portrayed a little unrealistically. They often spoke in very adult terms and engaged in very adult activities, despite being only eleven and twelve.
Considering May We Be Forgiven is nearly 500 pages long, there is little in the way of intense action after the first 40 pages. This had the effect of leading us to expect a twist of some kind. In spite of this, it was an utterly absorbing and enjoyable read which never failed to entertain. There were unexpectedly heart-warming scenes interspersed with darkly humorous and shocking moments. Devastatingly witty and original, ‘May We Be Forgiven’ is a truly deserved winner of the Women’s Prize for Fiction.