Though I'm firmly in the camp who believes that Hilary Mantel deserves all of the praise and prizes that a grateful readership can bestow on her, I was delighted to see another one of my favorite books from 2012—and a definite underdog—nab the "Prize Formerly Known as Orange" for 2013 (next year, the prize will be sponsored by Bailey's Irish Cream).
Yes, the Women's Prize for Fiction 2013 winner was none other than A.M. Homes, author of May We Be Forgiven, a picaresque, darkly funny tale of one man's journey to acceptance.
The chair of the judges, actress Miranda Richardson, did a good job of summing up the book's appeal: "It is a book where we all found ourselves laughing out loud on trains or wherever we were reading," she told the crowd at London's festival hall, where the £30,000 prize was awarded. "You're laughing in kind of fear or horror as much as anything else. It's relentless, but great."
This year's shortlist was incredibly strong, and included, along with Homes and Mantel, Kate Atkinson, Zadie Smith, Barbara Kingsolver and Maria Semple.
Today is your first chance to pick up A.M. Homes' new novel, May We Be Forgiven. And that's something you want to do! In a fall filled with fiction heavyweights (including the new J.K. Rowling, which also goes on sale today), Forgiven holds its own, keeping the reader glued to the pages as the darkly humorous and oddly hopeful tale of Harold Silver unfolds.
Homes is brilliant at depicting the absurdity of modern life—and then turning it up 10 notches, without losing the emotional resonance that a good novel needs. We asked her about the significance of forgiveness and what she means by the title in an email Q&A:
Redemption is a concept that appears very early in the novel, but doesn’t become realized until the very end. From whom do you think Harry—or for that matter anybody—is seeking forgiveness? How do we know when we have, in fact, been forgiven?
That’s a very good question, and I’ll answer it by saying that in the Jewish religion every year at Yom Kippur—the Day of Atonement—we fast and ask for forgiveness. We begin by saying, “ For the sin we committed before you”—by being ignorant—or for the sin of envy or speaking poorly about others. We literally beat our breast and go over a litany of possible sins and whether or not we have committed them and we ask to be forgiven.
I find it deeply satisfying to confess, even for things I have not done—to repent for ideas, to repent for transgressions of the mind—to raise the bar for the coming year and hope to do better.
Importantly it is also at this time that we forgive others—as much as we ask for forgiveness for ourselves.
OK, so I’m getting a bit lofty here, but the idea is that we should accept responsibility for our transgressions and importantly go beyond that and make an effort to do better in the future.
May We Be Forgiven by A.M. Homes
Viking • $26.95 • ISBN 9780670025480
on sale October 1, 2012
But unlike DeLillo's work, May We Be Forgiven allows for the possibility of making something real out of the craziness of modern life, even as it acknowledges the difficulty of doing so. In this excerpt, Harry is visiting his brother George, whose life he's virtually taken over after a series of horrific events and acts land George in a mental institution.
"Fuckin' freak show," George says when they're all gone.
"And you're the star," I say.
"How's my dog and kitty?"
"Fine," I say. "It would have been nice to know about the invisible fence, but we figured it out."
"Are you giving Tessie [the dog] the vitamins and the anti-inflammatory?"
"Which ones are hers?"
"In the kitchen cabinet, the big jar."
"I thought they were yours," I say. "I've been taking them daily."
"You're a moron," George declares.
I pull the accordion file out from under my ass. "There are some things I have to ask you. I'll start with the small stuff: How does the outdoor light for the front yard work? Also, I met Hiram P. Moody, he came to the funeral—does he pay all the bills? . . . What's your PIN number? Also, I tried to use the credit card but it was password protected; they asked for your mother's maiden name. I typed in Greenberg, but it didn't work."
"Dandridge," George says.
"Whose name is that?"
"It's Martha Washington's maiden name," he says, like I should know.
"Funny enough, that had never occurred to me; I thought they meant your mother's maiden name, not like the mother of America."
"Sometimes I forget the actual family, but I never forget Martha," George says. "I'm surprised you didn't know, you call yourself a historian."
"Speaking of history, I tried to enter your place of birth as New York, but again I was wrong."
"I use Washington, D.C.," George says. "It's really a question of what I can keep in mind."