MAY WE BE FORGIVEN by A.M. Homes (Granta Books, 2012)

For the first part of this novel I was sure I was going to give it a maximum five-star rating. By the end I wondered if four stars was too generous.

It opens at breakneck speed as a succession of bizarre and shocking incidents befall the main character, But then it’s as if someone pulls the plug on a white knuckle rollercoaster  ride and downgrades us to a safer merry-go-round instead.

The novel, written as a first person narrative, follows 365 days in the life of Harry Silver, a university professor of history specialising in the Nixon years.

To call this an eventful year, beginning and ending on Thanksgiving Day, would be a massive understatement.

Harry’s fascination for the disgraced ex-president derives in part from the fact that Nixon believed that rules didn’t apply to him. His downfall after Watergate also defined the moment when the American dream began to go pear-shaped.

Harry’s crisis is less public but no less dramatic. A marital crisis and work problems are the least of his concerns. A fling with his brother’s wife has tragic consequences and sets in motion a succession of events that positively fizzes with audacious energy and humour.

I have identified the moment when the novel takes a nose dive. It happens on page 324 (of 480) when Harry says : “I feel guilt, shame and responsibility on a profound level………The depth with which I now feel everything, when it is not paralyzing, is terrifying”.

Up until this point Harry is a hapless loser who says things like “I became nothing because that was much less risky than attempting to be something”. He is not especially likeable but I found it easy to understand why he makes the choice to actively avoid engaging emotionally with others and how he came to be resigned to his routine existence in a random, disassociated world.

He is just a regular, seriously flawed kind of guy. He is only really guilty of infidelity which, in the great scheme of things, is no great crime against humanity.  By the side of his elder brother George, a loathsome bully given to violent mood swings, he is a veritable saint.

Ultimately, this is a book about identity, the importance of knowing who you are and coming to terms with your failings.

But the plain truth is that Harry is far more interesting and entertaining as a reckless, immoral fuck-up than as the more sorted out individual he eventually becomes. This goes to prove that it’s more fun to read about sin than redemption.

In the final section there’s a particularly turgid description of a trip to South Africa, parts of which you imagine being lifted from Homes’ own travel notebook. It reads more as a ‘what I did on my holidays’ account  and makes little sense in the context of the story.

Homes has spoken of the desire to write a ‘great American novel’ so presumably had the preset target of writing close to 500 pages.

An editor worth his/her salt would have diplomatically pointed out how the padding and sentimentalized conclusion turns potential greatness into a noble failure.

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