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?