One sentence plot
Previously conventional Nixon scholar Harold Silver has a brief affair with his brother’s wife that ends with her being murdered, his brother (the murderer) in a psychiatric hospital, and Harold divorced, unemployed, and making a life looking after his brother’s house, children, and assorted waifs and strays, set in a slightly psychedelic 21st century zeitgeist.
I had no preconceptions when I picked up this book, which had been recommended to me. I hadn’t seen all the reviews deeming the story not believable, the characters unlikeable, the subplots excessive, the theme bleak… I’m not even sure I read the blurb carefully. And, not poisoned by anticipation, I found myself tumbling into what I found to be a really compelling, enjoyable, and ultimately uplifting read. Which I seem to find quite difficult to describe in review.
In one sense, this is a conventional tale of a man who is personally and professionally lost. Going through trauma, he finds out what’s important, learns to let go, learns to live, and finds himself in the process. But May We Be Forgiven is about more than that. It is a magnified, distorted version of that story, with quirky, unlikely-sounding events and decisions and reactions. And I loved these unlikely-sounding elements. Suspending belief wasn’t an issue. I never sat thinking ‘clearly he can’t adopt these pensioners!’ or ‘the son really ‘owns’ a village in Africa named after him?’ or ‘the government probably wouldn’t address terrorism quite like that’. I just went with it, and I was rewarded by a story that intrigued, compelled, cavorted, entertained, and wrung out quite a bit of sympathy from me for these bizarre characters and their quirky subplots and unusual experiences.
I don’t subscribe to the characters being unlikable, as other reviewers have said. Our protagonist is a dry, ‘normal’ sort of man with a brother who is successful, rich… and nonspecifically unpleasant. Both wives are fairly colorless. In fact, as I write that, I realize it feels like most of the characters in this book start out fairly colorless. They are then colored by their experiences in the book until they are bright and messy and interesting and almost attractive, in their own way.
Without the need for explicit descriptions of the growing attraction, it was entirely believable to me that Harold is tempted into an affair with his brother’s put-upon wife, and how this unleashed a series of disastrous events for Harold et al. With the brother in various quirky mental institutions, Harold essentially abandons his old life and acquires a family who are random and dysfunctional… and yet start to function. Similarly his sexual encounters are random and dysfunctional… but somehow start to function too. And an obsolete job which is random and dysfunctional… and yet – you get the picture.
To me, this book is about outgrowing the 20th century: conventionality is so last century; ordinariness is overrated. Here in the 21st century, the book seems to posit, anything goes, anything can happen, and just going with it without the filter of what is expected of people and situations doesn’t have to end badly. At the end of the day, it seems to boil down to the impact and importance of making connections with people, even if they’re not the people convention deems you ‘ought’ to have these connections with. I thought the book was funny and sad and optimistic. I really enjoyed reading it. And I’m still thinking about it.
The verdict: 4/5 shoes