May We Be ForgivenHarry and George Silver are brothers. George is a very successful TV executive with a lovely wife and two children. Harry, the older of the two, is a history professor and Richard Nixon expert, who never reached his potential. His unfinished Nixon book haunts him. One night George gets into a car accident, killing a man and a woman, and leaving a young boy orphaned. George appears to have suffered some sort of mental breakdown, exposing a murderous temper. He then escapes from a hospital psych ward, comes home to find his wife, Jane, in bed with his brother and proceeds to bludgeon Jane to death. On discovering the adultery, Harry’s wife leaves him, he moves into George’s house, and takes custody of his kids – a son, Nate, and a daughter, Ashley. And it’s a black comedy, in case you didn’t get that from the plot.

All this happens in less than thirty pages. It’s startling. The rest of the book is, in a sense, about Harry adjusting to his new responsibilities, dealing with his guilt about Jane’s death, and creating a new family out of the wreckage of George’s crimes.

More specifically, the remainder of May We Be Forgiven is largely a series of incidents stemming from George’s breakdown, rather than a linear plot. Harry has sex with bored housewives he meets on the internet. Harry’s elderly mother gets married. He hosts Nate’s bar mitzvah in a South African village Nate helped build called Nateville. The episodic nature of the plot was particularly evident in the middle section, where an Israeli arms dealer subplot had me thinking, what the hell’s going on?

As Harry settles into his new life his routine is broken up by truly bizarre encounters with people. There’s his married nymphomaniac mistress/best friend, and the young woman Harry meets at an A&P supermarket who follows him home, has sex with him, but refuses to tell him her name, just for starters. Those two characters, in particular, are disconcertingly, unusually candid. Really all the conversations in May We Be Forgiven are strangely devoid of pretence. Everyone (including Harry) seems to just say exactly what’s on their mind. In one scene Harry is selling kittens that George’s cat had – a lady considering buying one has this encounter with Harry. She sends a text to check with her husband if she should buy the kitten, she gets back the reply ‘Use your best judgment.’

‘I think it’s an automated response’…‘He’s got a smartphone – you can program auto-responses to anything. Watch’, she says, texting back. ‘Do you want chicken or steak for dinner?’ And again, ‘Use your best judgment.’…‘He’s probably having an affair.’

Who shares that much with a complete stranger? And that’s the least of it. At times it makes for a ballsy, challenging book but sometimes it’s just ridiculous.

May We Be Forgiven is a dark book. The kind where shit just keeps happening. Each time I thought things were getting better for Harry and his motley gang of children, pets and elderly relatives something would go spectacularly wrong. But for all that goes wrong I wasn’t upset. In part because it is an amusing book but also, I didn’t connect with anyone. Every human interaction was surreal and absurd. Nothing was real. Harry blames himself for Jane’s murder, to the point where he says he’s as responsible as George. I can’t imagine what the appropriate emotional response is when your brother kills his wife in a psychotic rage in front of you but the guilt seemed forced and extreme. And Harry never even seems to really blame George, he’s barely angry with him. Satire allows for an exaggerated, outrageous version of reality, but the sense of distance Homes created meant I wasn’t terribly invested in the characters.

May We Be Forgiven is one of those books that describe all those awkward human processes – sex, diarrhoea, vomiting, eating, illness, farting, burping – in grotesque detail. It borders on scatology. Nate gets violently sick during a trip to Williamsburg, Ashley tries to remove a tampon she put in the wrong hole. I’m really not squeamish but I think Homes relied too heavily on these details. And to what end? I don’t get the point of being informed every time a character farts.

A.M. Homes is a talented writer, and an accomplished dark humorist. But often I either felt overwhelmed by the ruin George plunges his family into or stuck amongst extraneous details and strange set pieces going nowhere. That being said, May We Be Forgiven is an intriguing and ambitious novel, perhaps worth reading for Homes’s unique take on tragedy.

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