A.M. Homes is, like Siri Hustvedt, a writer I have been meaning to read for a long time. On a recent second hand bookshop visit, I managed to find not only May We Be Forgiven, but also Siri Hustvedt’s What I Loved, Chad Harbach’s The Art of Fielding and The Collected Stories of Lydia Davis. Though I often get swept up in the excitement of new releases, I still have very romantic notions of reading older books. Fuelled by a childhood where I was surrounded by yellowing books and taken to second hand bookstores on almost a weekly basis, I still get a buzz of excitement from finding pre-loved buried treasure. I have a particularly great second hand bookstore close to where I live, with knowledgable staff and a really diverse selection that includes a lot of contemporary literary fiction. So I was thrilled to take home this little collection of pre-loved books, and equally excited to make a start on May We Be Forgiven.
May We Be Forgiven is a dark family comedy-drama told from the perspective of Harry, a historian and Nixon scholar. After a sudden act of domestic violence kills the mother of his niece and nephew and sends his brother away, Nate and Ashley’s uncle Harry takes custody of the children and begins to seek absolution for the acts of his brother. We watch Harry navigate not only being thrown into parenthood, but also help the children rebuild their lives during a pivotal stage of puberty. In this interview after winning the Women’s prize for fiction in 2013, Homes said of her writing that she’s interested in "the gap between who people are publicly and privately ... What I'm doing, which sometimes makes people uncomfortable, is saying the things we don't want to say out loud.” This statement is never more evident than in this passage where Harry is hit by what has happened:
I am sobbing, wailing, crying so deep, so hard, it is the cry of a lifetime; I am bellowing. The dog comes to me, licks my face, my ears, tries to get me to stop, but I can’t stop, I have just begun. It is as though I will cry like this for years—look what I have done. And, god-fucking-damn it, I’m not even an alcoholic, I’m nothing, just a guy, a truly average Joe—which is probably the worst part of it all, knowing that I am not in any way exceptional or distinguished. Except for and until what happened with Jane, I was entirely regular, normal; …
Look at me—even though no one’s come out and said it yet, you know it as well as I do, I’m as much a murderer as my brother, no more, no less.
I say it to myself—and I am undone.
Homes is just as deft as capturing the impact of their mother’s death by the hand of their father in the two children. While both Nate and Ashley appear precocious at first - they both attend exclusive boarding schools, are incredibly intelligent and have everything they need at their disposal - the vulnerability that is drawn out of them is beautiful. At a point when the usually calm Nate begins to show signs of cracking, he says powerfully and eloquently:
You grow up thinking your family is normal enough, and then, all of a sudden, something happens and it’s so not normal, and you have no idea how it got that way, and there’s really nowhere to go from here—it will never be anywhere near normal again.
Amidst the seemingly wrought family crisis, Homes breaks up the otherwise intense emotional drama with an arsenal of tools. There’s Harry’s initial vice for coping with the crisis: meeting women online and the bizarre circumstances he gets himself into as a result. There are the people such as the Amanda who, with her parents Madeleine and Cy, seemingly drop into his life out of nowhere to create further intrigue and antics. And then finally there is Harry’s teaching, writing and studying of former U.S. president Richard Nixon. There’s a really interesting and imaginative juxtaposition by Homes between Harry, who starts off as a slightly bland extra who then becomes the centre of the story, and the infamously impeached leader. Though Harry makes some curious and sometimes dubious decisions, we see throughout that he always has the best intentions and has an underlying naivety to his personality that is both endearing and slightly petulent. I really enjoyed Homes’ mirroring between Harry’s Nixon studies and his own experiences; in doing so she created a strong, layered and unique anti-hero.
Further in the novel, Harry is sought after by the surviving Nixon family to work through some long lost stories written in secret by their secretive relative. As he reads through these pieces, Harry treats them as historical documents and diaries in a way, looking for a part of Nixon he has always believed existed. There are two key moments during this work when Harry is echoed in his hero. Firstly, as he begins to read through the works, Homes declares,
In all families we have an official version, the tacitly agreed-upon narrative that we tell about who we are and where we come from.
Later, as his work reaches a pivotal stage, suddenly Harry finds what he’s looking for: salvation in Nixon that reflects the man his brothers’ actions have helped him become:
I finish (reading the story) and I’m almost in tears—it’s a side of Nixon that I’ve never seen before but always suspected existed beneath the surface. There’s a humanity, a desperation to this Nixon, which is early Nixon, not presidential Nixon, but Nixon as he knows himself. This Nixon is a man … who wants something but doesn’t quite know how to get it.
There are some really nice touches throughout the book about family and tradition, and what decisions you choose to make when faced with both forced events that take these away, as well as an opportunity to forge your own. It’s something I’ve faced myself through my parents divorce when I was a teenager, from living in a different state or at times a different country from my family throughout my twenties, and now in my early thirties in a relationship with whom we are our own family. Particularly now in the lead up to Christmas, it’s interesting to stop and think about what I’ve carried over from my childhood - writing letters to my interstate relatives and family friends, making shortbread as gifts but eating just as many myself, spending more time and energy than anyone else in my family wrapping presents, and my insistence on Christmas pudding on Christmas Day - compared to new traditions that build as you become more and more independent and circumstances around you evolve. There’s a beautiful moment when Harry is offered a biscuit by his Aunt, from a blue tin of Danish Butter Cookies - an item that was always in our house at Christmas as kids. I love the scene where Harry seeks to recreate the battered family tin by kicking a new one down the street as he walks the dog in order to make it just as faded and dented enough to be believable.
There are so many twists and turns to this novel, both unnerving and unexpected, which give the story a depth that rewards the reader for its length (my edition comes in at just shy of 480 pages). However by the last third of the book I felt like the number of elements at play were becoming too much. While the latter threads of the story provide emotional balance to the book, at times I felt like some of these story points were distracting and unwarranted and that perhaps Homes was working too hard and too consciously towards a happy ending. Having said this, the last twenty pages or so were beautiful, and I certainly felt justified and rewarded for persevering to it’s conclusion. A highly inventive, thoughtful and ultimately touching novel, May We Be Forgiven has captured a little piece of my heart.
As we prepare for Christmas, I am faced with the common pattern of December - a balance of ritual gorging and light, healthy options to balance the excesses and warm weather that seem to envelope the entire month. This Salad Niçoise by Lucy Feagins of The Design Files is a perfect meal to help restore balance. Whilst offering some freshness from the crisp leaves and hydrating cucumber, it also relies heavily on pantry staples, making it easy to throw together for lunch or a quick weeknight meal. The last thing you need at this time of year is one more reason to go the supermarket or a shopping centre, so I loved that I could pick up some fresh leaves from a local grocer and then throw the rest together from items I already had in the fridge. Having said this, I loved Lucy’s comments about sourcing good quality anchovies and tuna. As someone who adores all the smelly fish money can buy, if you’re more sceptical, try using the fleshier and more subtle marinated white anchovies and Sicilian style green olives if you or your company are less into strong, salty flavours. The salad dressing is punchy and adds so much flavour I will certainly use the recipe again to beef up otherwise ordinary green salads. I swapped out the tuna for a small piece of hot smoked salmon already prepared, and used some tarragon saved from the bottom of the crisper rather than buy a whole new bunch of basil. But despite slightly overcooking my boiled egg (I like mine soft and runny), this was a winning recipe that I will be coming back to again and again this summer.
In 2014 I made a concerted effort to read more widely. I admitted to myself (and in the very first post on this site) that I had been limiting myself almost exclusively to books written by white men. As the year progressed I started broadening what I was reading: more international and translated work, more work by local authors, more books written by women. And as I did this, I was rewarded so strongly that I wish I had done it years ago (I wrote about this for the Kill Your Darlings blog Killings, here). But in the interests of full disclosure, I thought I share a small breakdown of what I read in 2014. This includes the book I’m currently reading that I will post about next week, but I’m proud to say this year I have read a total of 52 books - one for each week of the year. I read 29 books (56%) written by men and 23 books (44%) written by women. A marked improvement for me and I’m proud that it’s edging closer to the 50/50 mark that I hope to achieve in 2015.
I read 41 works of fiction (79%) and 11 non-fiction (21%). This is not at all surprising as I tend to favour contemporary literary fiction over almost anything, but I have read a few memoirs and non-fiction works throughout the year for balance, and it’s something I’m coming to appreciate a little more. I like being able to read non-fiction that puts these works of fiction into context and it’s something I’d like to do more of when time allows. I read 40 international works (77%) as opposed to 12 Australian works (23%) across both fiction and non-fiction. This is what I found most interesting. Partly this is because I was trying to grow what I was reading more broadly outside of work by authors from the US and UK, but I’m surprised that I read so few local works. I also know that I read far too few works, particularly of fiction, by Australian women. I’m not saying I won’t read books by men in the future - I am beside myself excited about the new Franzen due next year for example - but I do want to continue read more consciously. I look forward seeing what 2015 has in store.