Formerly known as the Orange Prize, the Women’s Prize for Fiction is awarded annually and ‘celebrates excellence, originality and accessibility in women’s writing from throughout the world’. We delve into the fifth of the shortlisted works – A.M. Homes’ May We Be Forgiven.
An inescapable kiss, ‘serious, wet and full of desire’ between Harry and his brother George’s wife, Jane, is the portentous watershed moment that culminates in the unravelling of all three lives. A few months later, George plows into a minivan in a mindless ‘car accident’ – killing a couple and leaving their son who was marooned in the car an orphan – and rapidly descends into an existential crisis. Drawn closer by the unexpected sequence of events, Harry and Jane succumb to the throes of an adulterous affair – albeit a short one – as George discovers what has transpired and lashes out, changing all their lives forever.
Taking place within the first 14 pages, the irreversible events hurtle along at breakneck speed – leaving readers to wonder what will happen in the remaining 466 pages. The answer is: everything possibly imaginable and non-conceivable.
Harry is left in charge of George and Jane’s two children, Nate and Ashley, and their pets Tessie and Muffin whilst simultaneously grappling with the unavoidable end of his marriage to Claire. He faces an insurmountable heap of new responsibilities: the vitriol of Jane’s parents and the wider society, and an unceremonious finish to his career as an academic who specialises in all things Nixon.
In fact, we did a test case in your class, retitling The Morals of Monica Lewinsky a Breaking Faith at the Watergate. You gave a paper that wasn’t about a break-in, but about a blowjob, a B+. ‘Was I grading on a curve?’
In Homes’ meandering, discomfiting narrative, Harry turns to internet sexting and online dating; suffers from a stroke, visits old family members to trace his ancestral roots, and wrestles between feelings of guilt and pity as he watches his brother George flounder in a questionable correctional facility. The characters of Nate and Ashley are developed further as their relationship with Harry becomes arguably the centrepiece of the entire novel.
In a demonstration of Homes’ predilection for black humour, some of the most funny passages are also the most depressing – such as when the non-alcohol dependent Harry is kicked out of an AA meeting as he desperately tries to find refuge and acceptance.
I get up from my folding chair and exit, passing the old aluminium coffeepot with its ready light, the quart of whole milk, the sugar, the doughnuts, all the things I was looking forward to. I am tempted to take myself to a bar to become an alcoholic overnight so I can go back.
Nothing is sacrosanct as Homes expertly explores child abuse, substance abuse, mental illness and dementia. Various characters intersperse throughout Harry’s life to comical effect as he settles into the domestic, suburban life he’s been entrusted with. Some drift in and out, such as a woman in a supermarket who needs help recharging her dildo and a dying man who serves as Harry’s affable companion while he is in hospital. Others eventually becoming mainstays in Harry’s life, such as the neurotic Cheryl whom he meets online, the orphaned child Ricardo and the elusive Amanda who picks him up in a supermarket.
Often Homes uses Harry’s thoughts as a conduit through which she explores social norms and preoccupations. In passages replete with zany twists of fate and inescapable wit, Homes forces her readers to ponder upon a number of things – from the self-perpetuating cycle of domestic violence to the futility of societal prescribed monogamy and the dangerous paradox of an increasingly connected, anti-social world.
We talk online, we ‘friend’ each other when we don’t know who we are really talking to – we fuck strangers. We mistake almost anything for a relationship, a community of sorts, and yet, when we are with out families, in our communities, we are clueless, we short-circuit and immediately dive back into the digitized version
The bizarre and at times, surreal, May We Be Forgiven occasionally bears resemblance to Murakami’s Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, as a chain of outwardly random events propel a man’s seemingly mundane life into something much more complicated. Where Homes differs from Murakami is when the novel is resolved in a tidy, feel-good ending.
Essentially a tale of personal transformation – but without the usual clichés – and redemption, readers watch as Harry grows into himself and sheds the ‘rusty sense of disgust’ that was once his soul. At once affecting and uproarious, the characters that Homes so deftly conjures stay with readers well beyond the final pages are turned.