A.M. Homes’ newest novel is the story of a family crisis and the rebuilding of a life. When Harry’s brother commits a tragic murder, Harry is left to care for his niece and nephew with the rudimentary skills of a man who never quite grew up. On surface, perhaps, Harry’s life appears successful, steadfast. But infidelity, the break-up of his marriage and the loss of his job all demonstrate how tenuous his grasp of reality was. Harry is a man living with his head down, watching his feet as he plods through life, who is suddenly forced to reexamine everything he has pegged his life on so far. Homes is an astute observer of the world we live in today. Harry’s self-discovery takes us through the strange and intimate world of sex in an isolated society, shows us what it means to be parents and children, and examines our place as Americans in the larger story of the world.
There’s nothing special about Harry. He is a not-quite-old, not-quite-young man who has suddenly lost everything that gave his life any meaning. He bumbles through – he doesn’t say the right thing, he does his best to do good. Homes has a spare, simple writing style. We don’t get much physical description of Harry, and the first-person viewpoint will have readers questioning who is the crazy brother at times. We only have the inside view of Harry, directly out of his eyes as he see the world. Which is all each of us has anyway; examined too closely, we would all appear strange, wrong, our actions downright confusing. Homes’ starts the novel by saying, “Was there ever a time you thought – I am doing this on purpose, I am fucking up and I don’t know why“. We can’t explain ourselves except to say: we’re human. And maybe we’ve lost sight of what our humanity means at its core. We live in an age where technology reigns supreme, where it feeds back to us our own image in word, sound and images. We can see ourselves, rationalize ourselves so well that somehow we’ve lost sight of what it actually means to inhabit a body, to feel and move and be and enjoy this life that we’ve been given. We’ve been so busy trying to lead some ideal life, some vision, that we’ve forgotten how to live at all.
We have been obsessed with seeing ourselves because we have wanted to see how great, how powerful we could become. But power can come at a terrible price and globalization and the internet allow us to see more that just what we want to see. We’ve seen ourselves, as Americans, at war, as not the best people we could be, despite how good, honest and true we might like to be. Nathan, Harry’s nephew, provides the opportunity for us to see ourselves in a good way, although complicated. He has a relationship with an African community that the main characters visit at one point, bringing their American way of life into a land and culture that is foreign. What he does with his time and money are good things, helping the village to help themselves. And although it is a place that is foreign, what lies at the heart of their relationship is the human struggle, a level that they can always connect on. Nate concludes:
I have thought of hardships of economy, race, and illness and become aware of how privileged my life is. When things got difficult for me, I thought of you and felt and obligation to survive, not just for myself, but for others. And it is what you taught me two years ago which kept me alive – for this I come back and say thank you – you have given me my life.
Which is a lesson for us all: that we are nothing without our relationships, without the connections that we make. Our lives only have meaning in the context of one another.
May We Be Forgiven is a book about the American Dream, how it has changed, how it must change to encompass who we are, who we’ve become as a nation. We are immigrants, we are the poor, we are the rich; there is no right or wrong (except the looming, large good-versus-evil). We have the choice, we are so lucky to have a choice. May we be forgiven for sometimes doing the evil thing, but we do our best as humans. We stumble through relationships, connect in myriad ways every day, but in the end, these relationships are the most important things we have. Yes, money makes it easier for everyone to get what they want (the main characters in the novel don’t hurt for money), but it is also evident from their experiences that it is not the amount of money the spend, but where they spend the money that really matters. Does your money touch lives? Or does it only touch things, new and hard, things without a soul? Homes addresses the age-old question: what does it mean to be rich? And we find, yet again, that our society is rich in people, as it has always been. People are our greatest resource, and can be a great source of happiness if we let them, or have we forgotten? May we be forgiven for that. May we remember.