An outstanding year for new literary fiction culminates for me in a book of quite astonishing bravery, audacity and hilariously grim satire. Can this really be the state of the middle-class nuclear family in the US today? A. M. Homes seems to be saying that it is. This book is a disturbing read; it is definitely not for the faint-hearted. But it is definitely for anyone who appreciates razor-sharp writing.
Briefly, it is the story of two brothers: Harold, the narrator, and George, just eleven months younger. George is a thoroughly nasty piece of work and now he has lost his mind. A trail of devastating events leaves mild-mannered, college lecturer Harold to pick up the pieces. Will he be able to cope? Will he ever finish his book on Richard Milhous Nixon? And why, you may ask, is he writing a book about a discredited dead ex-President whom none of his students remember? Factor in a couple of disturbed children (excellent characters, these), internet dating with some fairly grubby sex and a legal system that seems unacquainted with the term `justice', and you have an unflinching indictment of middle-class America in the early years of the 21st century. Read it and weep.
But you will also laugh because it is very funny. Even funnier, perhaps, for Jewish readers. Towards the end of the book there is a noticeable mellowing and when the family travels to a tiny village in South Africa to celebrate Harold's nephew Nate's Bar Mitzvah, Homes reveals that she can do tenderness and optimism too.
What makes A. M. Homes such an interesting writer is that she does not fit neatly into any particular pigeon-hole and she knows how to nail her targets with needle-sharp precision. Devastating.
on 7 July 2013
I decided to check out the writer upon her winning a fiction prize out of a strong shortlist. I read the Kindle sample and was compelled to purchase the title almost immediately, based on the magnificient and highly original start. Up to about the middle I enjoyed the black humour, the visceral punch (normally I would find it distressing, but I accepted the plot precisely because of the black humour) the power of observation of American life, the vivid characterisation of the protagonists, the 'Jewish humour'.
Then something happens and the novel becomes a feel-good bore. Not that some scenes are not superbly drawn, but A M Homes changes tack and direction and never really comes back. Up till the last moment I waited for the dark undertones to return, perhaps to warn the reader that things are never so 'good', but nothing happens except everything melts into redemption and reconciliation in suburbia, as per the title. To me, this is inconsistent and she has written two books here, the second of which I do not care for as much as the first.
I read this for my book group, the book having been chosen because it won the Women's Prize for Fiction in 2013, beating Zadie Smith, Hilary Mantel & Barbara Kingsolver amongst others on the short list. In our group the book met with very mixed reactions: some hated it, some started off hating and grew to like it, more started off enjoying it and then found they lost their interest as the book progressed - it certainly provoked plenty of discussion.
I found the prose style to be exhilarating and the opening section is very strong. There is plenty of well-aimed satire on middle class life in the USA & the American Dream. There is some searingly black humour as more and more bad things happen to the characters. In many ways the book reminded me of the US TV series 'Soap'. Some reviewers have mentioned the saccharine ending but I wondered if even that was part of the joke given the American predilection for schmaltzy, happy, upbeat endings. Undoubtedly the plot is implausible at times and I never found the character of Harry, the main protagonist, a downbeat Nixon scholar, to be entirely convincing. Nixon and his downfall act as a metaphor for the failings of the American Dream and America's place in the world: " He was the perfect storm of present, past, and future, of integrity and deceit, of moral superiority and arrogance, of the drug that was and is the American Dream, wanting more, wanting to have what someone else has, wanting to have it all". The novel also celebrates an alternative, non-nuclear family as Harry 'collects' a disparate band of characters including his niece and nephew who, from being "absent of personality, absent of presence, and, except for holidays, largely absent from the house" at the beginning turn out to be decent, thoughtful and admirable - their characters are also the most believable.
I think this book is best read in long chunks - it isn't the sort of thing you can pick up and put down. There are endless sub-plots, not all of which seem to serve any discernible purpose, and the novel meanders a bit. I enjoyed it, particularly the sparkling dialogue and the mordant wit, and I wouldn't be averse to reading more by this author, but somehow, I felt that the novel was too uneven and didn't quite 'make' it for me.
on 27 August 2013
I was disappointed in this. I had heard and read good things about the book but I found it never ending. The story doesn't take you anywhere and just seems to move from one unbelievable scenario to the next. I didn't actually like any of the characters either so could not really empathise with them.
on 28 August 2013
This starts off incredibly well, at a racing pace and full of dark humour and poignant moments. Then it very very slowly gets more and more dull and laboured until I gave up two thirds of the way through. Such a pity, it needed a script editor armed with a massive axe to cut it by at least a third.
on 15 February 2014
This is another of those 'hmmm' books for me. I am still not sure what I thought of it. I didn't 'like' it. It was funny, and twisted and dark, and I loved the Nixon metaphors that ran through it which made it even more twisted and dark, but did make me wonder how many people unfamiliar with Nixon would get them - and you did need to know a bit about Nixon, not just the bare bones of Watergate. It's a novel that seemed to run away with itself in the first quarter, so wildly to the extent that I almost gave up on it, partly because I couldn't keep up and partly because my credibility was stretched, until I realised (as per quite a few other reviewers) that it was a false narrative - duh!
Basically, May We Be Forgiven is a satire of the American Dream. Harry (narrator) is a passive vehicle - apparently - and average American guy - apparently - who minds his own business and spends most of his time obsessing about RMN and the book he's writing on it. Then, following a series of bizarre events, Harry 'inherits' his nasty brother's life, loses his own indifferent wife and his job, and set about reinventing his brother's and various other families in true American Dream style. A straight reading of this is saccharine and sickening, but you can't take anything Harry says as the truth. Harry not only distorts everything, but he sees the past through a totally distorted lens and we suspect, though that's never actually clarified, that he had what borders on the abused kind of childhood. Maybe.
This is one of those books that does stay with you. You turn over scenes and replay them in your head and if you could be bothered, I reckon if you took the two parallel lines of Harry's life as he says he lived it and RMN's life as Harry would have liked him to live it, then they'd not be parallels but they'd converge - not that either of them would bear any resemblance to the truth. But the think about RMN, and the thing about Harry, is that both were/are arch deceivers, and arch deceivers are so good at it because they believe their own deceptions. Which is maybe what this book is about? Life isn't how we live it but how we perceive it and tell it to others? Maybe.
I'm glad I read this. I will definitely read more of AM Holmes (I've only read one other so far) but I'll wait until I'm in a pondering, wanting to be shaken up frame of mind, I think.
on 13 February 2014
I quite enjoyed Homes last novel; this book will save your life and I found the first 50 pages of this novel equally as interesting. From then on, well I'm still working out how to go about claiming back all those wasted hours I spent ploughing through the rest. There's a plot in there somewhere but boy, does it go on and on and on. Does Home contract state that her first draft is the only draft that will be published because this book could do with losing 200 pages of rambling nothingness. It lacks structure, plot and any strong characterisation. How it won awards I do not know.
Harry and George Silver are brothers. George is brash, arrogant, successful; Harry the quieter and more conventional. This novel takes us throughout a tumultuous year, which begins and ends with a Thanksgiving dinner. At the first, Harry is glad for his quiet life with success businesswoman Claire; as he eyes his brother's children Nathaniel (Nate) and Ashley, glued to their electonic devices, with a cynical eye, while George loudly holds court. Then, George's wife, Jane, brushes against him in the kitchen and his attraction for her ultimately leads to tragedy. This book has an amazingly hard hitting beginning and, apparently, it started life as a short story, which grew into a novel. We have barely begun when there is an accident, an affair, a murder and a whole series of tragic events, which end with Harry responsible for his brother's children. Childless himself, how does an academic - a Nixon scholar, who has spent years writing 'the' book on his hero - relate to two children he barely knows?
Bizarrely, Harry finds himself living in his brother's house; wearing his clothes, walking his (unwilling) dog and taking care of his roses. Along the way, we read of some of the more absurd sides of modern life - of internet relationships, unsettling visits to George at a mental facility, how his mother is creating a new life for herself in a cheeringly progressive facility for the elderly. Of course, the main story revolves around his attempts to make this new life work, how he collapses in stress and illness and regroups, learns how to parent without being a parent and the magic children bring to your life. It is mainly a novel about family. Of how the nuclear family has changed and expanded to mean so much more - as Harry somehow manages to make his next Thanksgiving filled with the people he has grown to care about during an overwhelming year. Clever, sharp, emotional and very funny - a great novel and a worthy winner of the Orange prize.
on 31 December 2012
One of the strangest books I've ever read but gripping - my god, the opening chapter had me leaping out of my chair.
The story is there as a reassuring backdrop to be revealed in bush-wacking slugs,but totally unimportant. What gets you is the writing - the acute observance of characters who are anything but normal but who do such normal things that we are left wondering about our own capacity for weird. Fab, fab, tight writing, some laugh out loud stuff, slow reveals that have you reading through the night.
Wonderful. I LOVED it.
on 10 November 2013
The first few pages hooked me, but it went FAST downhill after that. It's like an endless series of short stories (none of which are very engaging) that were written at different times and then contrived to be connected. Like the author started out with an idea, but realised it was not enough for an entire novel, and so stitched in a bit more, then again realised it wasn't enough, so stitched in a bit more again, etc, etc. I really cannot express what a waste of time this book feels like.