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May We Be Forgiven

By Stuart Kelly

“Homes’s style is always recognisably her own. Homes, the author of the deeply disturbing The End of Alice and some of the finest short stories of our times manages a high-wire act in May We Be Forgiven.  There are moments of outright satire but these are always held in tandem to moments of real emotional engagement and insight. Homes manages to write sparkling dialogue, often very funny indeed, or at least capable of making the readier choke with surprise’

ONE of the most ­difficult tasks for the novelist is the depiction of moral change. On the whole, literature has been ­relatively successful in representing the baby steps towards wickedness; such as with Hogg’s Justified Sinner or ­Conrad’s Secret Agent.

Moral improvement is a far greater challenge. George Eliot ­famously flunked it in Silas Marner, where the miser’s change of heart is conveniently shunted into a 16-year hiatus. It is at the centre of A M Homes’ fascinating new novel, May We Be Forgiven. The lack of question mark, that modal, imprecatory choice of verb, should alert the reader that her answers are hardly clear-cut. If the early 1990s American writers such as Donna Tartt and Bret Easton Ellis specialised in the darkening shades towards psychopathy, it seems as if writers in the 2010s are more keen to explore goodness. There is some overlap here with Michael Chabon’s recent Telegraph Avenue and some with Lydia Millet’s Ghost Lights. But Homes’s style is ­always recognisably her own.

The novel is narrated by Harry, a teacher of history and scholar of the career of Richard Nixon. It opens with Thanksgiving at his high-flying younger brother George’s house, and ends a year later with every character transformed, and not always for the better. George, who has always had a short temper, is involved in a car accident which kills a couple and orphans their child. Although it is not his fault it precipitates a breakdown and within days, George will fatally attack his wife. Homes ratchets up the pressures on Harry – foster-parent, adulterer, addicted to online, no-strings sexual relationships, soon-to -be unemployed, victim of a mild stroke and recipient of a secret cache of Nixon’s short fiction – in a manner which would be unbearable were it not also blackly comic.

Homes, the author of the deeply disturbing The End Of Alice and some of the finest short stories of our times (A Real Doll, in which a boy has a full sexual relationship with his sister’s Barbie is astonishing), manages a high-wire act in May We Be Forgiven. There are moments of outright satire, particularly concerning George’s psychiatric care – he ends up on a project called The Woodsman, the ideology of which is that it is better for violent men to take out their rage on nature than each other – but these are always held in tandem to moments of real emotional engagement and insight. Homes is particularly good on the pre-teen children, Ashley and Nathaniel (“truly spineless, eyes focused on their small screens, the only thing in motion their thumbs – one texting friends no one has ever seen and the other killing digitized terrorists. They were absent children, absent of personality, absent of presence, and, except for holidays, largely absent from the house”) whose lives will soon intersect with grumpy Uncle Harry’s.

Comparisons will no doubt be drawn to Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections – as well as sibling rivalry and set-piece holiday meals, Harry also manages to acquire some surrogate parents (while his own mother scandalises the nursing home by starting an affair with a man whose wife is comatose) who have the beginnings of geriatric memory problems. Homes is more frenetic and vertiginous in her stylistic switches, but is also less obviously striving for import. More importantly, resolution comes from a resolutely non-nuclear family, rather than from within that tradition. The multiple humiliations and horrors heaped on Harry are not C S Lewis’s shaping chisel marks; there is little in the way of redemptive suffering. Harry’s sufferings reach the absurd, not the meaningful. But the tone of Homes’ book is closer to Lewis’s aphorism that “God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks to us in our conscience, but shouts in our pains: It is His megaphone to rouse a deaf world”. Harry’s ­ascent into wholeness begins with very small but real ­pleasures – looking after his brother’s pets, drinking whisky and ordering in take-out hamburgers with a dying man while in hospital. Occasionally, the harum-scarum plotting can stretch a shade too thin – the bar mitzvah in a South African village which Nathaniel has been doing charity work for has a wise man straight from central casting (and reads in part like a DayGlo version of an Alexander McCall Smith novel).

At one point a psychiatrist asks Harry: “Is it self-punishing not to want anything in a society that’s all about desire?” That question is the novel’s moral high-note. Homes manages to write sparkling dialogue, often very funny indeed, or at least capable of making the reader choke with surprise. The set pieces, especially Harry’s last lecture when he has been made redundant and his confrontation with his brother in the progressive care unit, are deft at ricocheting the reader between high comedy and extreme pathos. The empathetic qualities and sparkling prose make up for, in part, some haphazard and centrifugal plotting, and some narrative expediencies (money never seems to be a problem throughout the novel). Granta has produced a stunning jacket, resembling pieces of paper inexpertly stuck together with Post-it notes. It is perhaps slightly too metaphorically ­appropriate.