May We Be Forgiven – A.M. Homes

A while back I asked you about the Great American novel and how I would like to read more of them be they classic or modern (indeed so much so I asked you about them not once but twice, oops). One of the reasons for this was that I had been discussing it on The Readers, with my new guest American co-host, and also because I had not long finished May We Be Forgiven, A. M. Homes Women’s Prize winning novel, as October’s book club choice. I have taken this long to write about it because I have had to really mull over my rather mixed thoughts on it. Plus as the book starts and finishes on a thanksgiving I thought it might be apt to discuss today, after yesterday.

Granta Books, 2012, hardback, fiction, 368 pages, kindly sent by the publisher

May We Be Forgiven takes place from one thanksgiving to another as Harry Silver’s life is turned completely upside down in the space of a single year. All it takes is a single kiss to set the ‘chaos ball’ rolling in Harry’s life after his sister-in-law Jane kisses him between washing up the remains of the turkey dinner. A few weeks later when his brother, George, is arrested after a fatal motor incident and promptly has a breakdown (that seems may have been looming for a while) and Harry and Jane start an affair. This is soon followed by a murder, a divorce and suddenly Harry is left as the guardian of his brother’s children. You are left feeling rather breathless after just fifty pages, yes that is right we are only fifty pages in here and all this has already happened, what could possibly follow?

Drenched in her scent, but too shaken to shower or fall asleep in their bed, I wait until she is asleep and then go downstairs, to the kitchen, and wash myself with dish soap. I am in my brother’s kitchen at three in the morning, soaping my cock in his sink, drying myself with a towel that says “Home Sweet Home.” It happens again in the morning, when she finds me on the sofa, and then again in the afternoon, after we visit George. “What’s the story with your hand?” George asks Jane the next day, noticing her bandages. He’s back in his room, with no memory of the night before.
Jane starts to cry.

That was the question I found myself asking as I read on, where on earth will Homes take me next? The answer is that, pretty much, anything you could think imaginable may well be on the cards. We watch as Harry tries to cope with enforced parenthood, divorce, becoming addicted to random sexual encounters through the internet with frustrated (and occasionally crazy) housewives, children with disabilities, even American’s political past via Harry’s obsession with Nixon. Anything it seems that Homes can use to create a satire of the American dream and how delicate it really is and how easily it can all fall apart.

There are some wonderful set pieces here; an unwanted dog who doesn’t want to be walked for good reason, the bumping into a previous casual sexual encounter who now wants to date, a holiday away with three children who aren’t yours and all get violently ill. I could go on, in fact on occasion I was thinking this was a series of short stories (which is how this book started in Granta in 2007) that had all been interlinked to make a tapestry of American life. The problem for me with this was that it what held it together seemed to be less tightly knitted as I went on and the loose threads started to show. There is almost too much going on and too much happening to one man, and the background and fibre of the piece seems to be missing.

As Harry’s ‘new life’ developed the less I started to believe in him. How could so much stuff happen to one man? Seriously, Harry can barely garden without some tool almost decapitating him of inadvertently getting cat poo in his eye. He is really rather an ineffectual character, everything happens to him and he began to feel less and less like a character and more and more like a plot device and one which was simply there to hold the story together and give us some belly laughs along the way. Yet as with all good things – yes, even doughnuts – too much of a good thing can leave you feeling a little queasy. I wanted less of Harry’s antics (I also wanted the whole Nixon stuff to be taken out; I didn’t see the need for it personally) and more of a look at why Harry and his brother George were the way they were which is only ever hinted at on the odd occasion.

The soup warms me, reminding me that I’ve not eaten since last night. A man with two black eyes passes, lunch tray in hand, and I think of how my father once knocked my brother out, flattened him, for not much of a reason. “Don’t be confused who’s the boss.”  

The thing that vexed me the most was that I loved (and I mean really loved) Homes’ writing. I think she is a genius. Every paragraph has some form of genius in it or simply ‘a moment’, every character has some essence of the familiar and real whilst flawed. Every dark moment has some light and laughter to it. Brilliant. Yet it gets too much. A book which is constantly on ‘max power’ doesn’t seem to know where to stop. The clever satire becomes an overdone farce, as I read on I started to find I was getting annoyed by how brilliant it was, because I felt it knew how brilliant it was and was showing off. Not the intention I am sure but there was something in the delivery (and a big edit/shortening would have helped) that jarred and it lost me through the middle. Like with Zoe Venditozzi’s  Anywhere’s Better Than Here after it changed tempo in the second half, I found myself wanting to say to Homes too as the author ‘it’s alright you have me, I think you are a genius, just stop with all the bells and whistles you don’t need it’.

However May We Be Forgiven’s main theme was what won me round again towards the end as it is less a book about the American dream and how it can crack and actually all about what the word ‘family’ means and what a family is. At the start we have the stereotypical ‘blood linked’ family which is clearly fractured and falling apart, quite probably because of the generation above, unwittingly. By the end of the novel we have a very different family, one by no means ‘the norm’ yet one that feels like a true family all the same and I think that is what is at the heart of May We Be Forgiven and is what resonated with me and so its soul saved it. I am certainly left wanting to read much more of Homes work because as I mention, she is a stunning writer.

Who else has read May We Be Forgiven and what did you make of it? I am expecting some interesting mixed responses as we had quite the debate at book group (over whether it depicted a real true America or was a farce, I was in the latter camp), with some of the Green Carnation judges and also recently on the phone to my mother! Have any of you ever found a book where the authors writing is so brilliant and so full on that as it doesn’t let up you find you struggle, or is that just me? Which of Homes’ previous novels should I give a whirl?

24 Comments

Filed under A. M. Homes, Book Group, Granta Books, Review

24 responses to “May We Be Forgiven – A.M. Homes

  1. zeneedle

    As an American who lives in a cobbled together family, I can tell you this is not a farce. Many people I know live in families of their own making, not blood families. The book took time to grow on me, but in the end, I found it brilliant.

    • I don’t mean the family at the end is a farce. Far from it, as I say above for me that family of choice is what saves the book. My family is a cobbled one too, love that expression might steal it, so I liked that element.

      What I mean is a farce is what happens to Harry in the middle. That’s where I struggled. Is almost too much going on.

  2. kaggsysbookishramblings

    It’s really hard, isn’t it, when you expect to like a book and want to like a book, but it just doesn’t work out! I confess I haven’t read Homes but I have heard a lot about her work. It sounds like the satire is unsuccessful and subtle satire is usually best in my experience. Seems as if the book has at least stimulated much discussion!!

    • It has indeed created discussion and that’s always good.

      I think I am of the mind you are, I would rather read a satire than a farce and I think the subtler ones can be the most powerful to the perceptive.

  3. Well, at risk of repeating book club remarks, Simon: I think she is mainly a poor writer; I have read “Jack”, written when she was seventeen and that has left virtually no effect on me; “This Book can Change Your Life” was better and quite heartwarming; but she has found a formula and she sure stuck to it in the current book: “Great American Novel” it isn’t, IMHO; not that there is a great American novel (one) tradition to me anyway!I I DID like the queer(as in non-nuclear,non- mainstream family idea); but it gets lost in the farce. I think she is appealing to a market,(as are all published authors , to varying degrees): the great American Novel with a modern twist market.! I think of how Edmund White does so well the loose baggy monster of a novel, which APPEAR(anyway) unedited but WORK in all their bagginess lol. This, as you say, reads as an overcooked farce!Take care, Steve.ps Maupin does non-nuclear families so much better and doesn’t mince his words as to the political implications of that, AND is funnier lol

    • You see I have to politely disagree with you there Steve. I actually think she is a rather incredible writer in terms of prose. I just think in this case the book needed a stronger editor who would take some more of the farce out and cut it down a bit. I didn’t really think the family was a queer (as in LGBT) one, I thought it was just a family of the times – or a cobbled one as Zeneedle so brilliantly put it.

      • I am fine to agree to disagree, Simon; like we do in Book group sometimes lol. I meant queer, not in lgbt sense, but in wider definition of counter to the mainstream/ unconventional. But more than happy to agree to disagree🙂 Take care:)

      • Haha anyone who I can agree to disagree with is a good person to know😉

        I think though that this is what’s so great about books. The discussion they can create and how everyone’s opinion is different and that’s fine and dandy too. That’s why book groups work so well. Like ours does clearly😉

      • Yes, exactly, Simon; just agree there lol; not agree to DISagree.. Yes,our book group is, hitherto anyway, good for that; I chose a book which everyone disliked including me lol,(I didn’t choose it deliberately; I had liked his other novels!) and there were very divided polite differences of opinion of the Holmes!You have created a good blog, where people can politely disagree(as well, as, obviously, agree!).See u on the 7th:)

      • Sometimes it’s the books that at least half the people didn’t like and some did that work the best from past experience.

  4. Thanks very much for this – it was on my to read list, and now I definitely think I’ll try it🙂

  5. Interesting – I was considering reading this, but don’t want to know – thank you for saving me getting hold of it then abandoning it part way through! I loved “This Book Will Change Your Life”, so it’s a shame there’s not another as good as that.

    • Woah, woah, woah there Liz. Please do not be put off a book you might like because I didn’t like it – that is honestly what I am not trying to do here. This is just, like all my posts, my jottings about a book. I just didn’t get on with the farcical but I think some of it is brilliant and many, many, many people have really enjoyed it.

  6. Funny, for me this was a book that was hard to get into at first but I liked it more and more as I went on. It is one of my favorites of the year. And you may recognize it as the first entry on my Thanksgiving weekend “first lines” challenge: http://slywit.wordpress.com/2013/11/28/a-truth-universally-acknowledged/ (which everybody here is welcome to come play).

    I actually think the Nixon element adds a lot to the story, from showing what an out-of-touch academic Harry is to being yet another example of the hidden depths of even the most examined life.

    • Maybe I didn’t get the Nixon elements as its not part of my political or social history, that could be part of it. I think I saw another review pondering that somewhere, it might even have been in a broadsheet.

      This is what is so wonderful about books, you grew to love it and I loved it, got bored by it and then ended up quite liking it!

  7. zeneedle

    The story may have bordered on farce, but it was a fun way to show the outrageous lengths Harry would go to for his new family. It read like a great American fascicle comedy and once I got into it, I let the story carry me along and suspended my disbelief. There were times I was laughing out loud, as well as, rolling my eyes (signs of a good farce?). It worked for me because Harry comes out stronger, with more to offer, than when we went into the story. Harry stayed in my mind long after I finished the book.

  8. I felt the same as you about too much being crammed into this. And I felt that Harry’s redemption was a bit simplistic. But I did still enjoy it a lot.

  9. heather

    Hey Simon. I read this book the week it came out so had no notion of what to expect. I was blown away by the sheer craziness and hilarity of the first 50 pages and loved the narrator for his flaws and aspiration to be a better person. I do agree with the author’s voice getting in the way, I find that with Franzen, but I didn’t experience that with Homes. Plus – damn can she write. Found your website recently Simon and truly enjoy it. I like your modesty and lack of arrogance in your posts. Heather

  10. Manjira

    I read the bk after chancing upon your review here earlier. Been an absolutely rewarding experience. I’m more convinced than ever before that the chances of redemption in our lives comes through the very young and the very old. This book reminded me of that.
    Btw, love your blog and been a silent follower for a while now.🙂
    All the best with ur new job.

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