I picked up 'may we be forgiven' by A.M. Homes at the library on the spur of the moment because I remembered that it won the Women's Prize for Fiction in 2013 and remained the only one of the winners that I had not read. I have to say, not that women writers are not entertaining, but that I think I laughed aloud at this book more often than I have done at any of the others. It was funny in that 'just how bad can things really be' kind of way, and because of the incredible actions and reactions of Harold; he really is the most unlikely of heroes. I was thinking about men writing women and women writing men, and when I looked again at the list of winners I was surprised to realise quite how many of them have male central characters.
Harold is a Nixon scholar, giving rather lacklustre lectures at the local college and writing a book that he never seems to get around to finishing. At the family Thanksgiving dinner an affair begins between him and Jane, his brother's wife, and then a fatal car accident sets off a chain of tragic events that take over his life. However it was a life that he seemed to be drifting through rather aimlessly, and to begin with I found him a really hard character to bond with, but as he struggles to cope with the shit that life piles on him you begin to admire him, and his emerging tenacity and loyalty. It is as if you are watching someone quite literally build their life from scratch. He is abandoned by his wife and moves in to his brother's home to take care of the kids and pets. He had no idea what he is doing, having never taken care of so much as a houseplant before, but somehow he copes, and by the end of the year (that is encompassed by the book) he has drawn together a collection of waifs and strays and made a family. No one has ever asked anything of him before but once life starts to make serious demands he finds resources even he didn't know he had. He starts off very passive, things just happen to him, but as time passes he becomes the driving force in his own life, almost for the first time, and when he finally tells Amanda not to call again you are pretty confident it is going to be a lasting change.
This is what his life is like early on:
"A minute after the minder is gone, I accidentally flip a massive clot of rich black dirt into my eye, blinding myself. I paw at my face, trying to clear it. I use my shirt, get up too fast, and step on the trowel, throwing myself off balance. I crash into the barbecue and rebound - mentally writing the headline: Idiot Kill Self in Garden Accident. It's Tessie who guides me to the stair, with me holding on to her collar, saying, "Cookie, cookie, lets go find a cookie." In the downstairs half-bath I let myself have it. "Shit face," I say, looking at myself in the mirror, thinking it really is possible that I didn't flip dirt into my eye but shit of some sort: Tessie shit, kitty shit, raccoon or deer shit - whatever it is has a funky smell, like a fancy cheese, cheese so rare and ripe that they keep it in its own cave and bring it out only for royal holidays. I have one eye open and am looking at myself in the mirror, giving myself a talking to, remembering another time when I looked in the mirror, I literally dissolved - the stroke." (p.179)
This is the same man a few hundred pages later:
"I am cooking, cleaning, and packing three enormous duffels with a month's supply of sheets, pillows, bug spray, stamps and stationary, shirts, shorts, and bathing suits, while having an identity crisis - one I'm too old to have - against the backdrop of a heat wave and three children who are leaving for camp this weekend. Ashley and I have a talk and 'relationships' away from home and reaffirm that there should be no trading of physical favours between adults and children - and she shouldn't fool around with anyone more than three years older or younger, and what she does should be limited to 'the soft arts', a phrase I coined for the occasion. Ricardo and I review the plan I've come up with in collaboration with a colleague of Dr Tuttle's to wean him off his medications and add a variety of supplements. Nate and I go over his summer reading and extra-credit projects." (p.436)
... and talking to the psychiatrist (getting an assessment for the social services to apply to foster) (for info: George is his brother):
""George is a paranoid bully who doesn't see what's good for him and looks at me as the enemy no matter what I do." I blurt it out, and then there's a very long silence.
"And Nixon?" Tuttle asks.
"I'm not sure Nixon could psychically afford to accept that he did anything wrong. He desperately needed to think of himself as decent."
"Do you think your book is good?"
"Sometime I think it is a brilliant, reinvigorating discussion not only about Nixon but about an entire era. Other times I wonder if it's just a cultural hairball that took years to cough up."" (p.448)
It is a book about personal transformation and redemption, and creating community by drawing people in and allowing them to become more important. There are some surreal scenes with the CIA and stuff about Nixon that I assume is invented (though his daughter is a real person; who knew that Nixon's daughter married Eisenhower's grandson) and the whole Bar mitzvah in South Africa was also very strange but you just find yourself carried along for the ride. Another writer I am definitely going to read some more from.