Cordon off any squeamish parts of your psyche for the first 20 pages of A M Homes's sixth novel. Starting with an illicit Thanksgiving kiss and rocketing through a fatal road accident, insanity, seduction, adultery and murderous domestic violence, it's a gloriously disturbing opening. Like Homes's This Book Will Save Your Life, May We Be Forgiven centres on a lost sou=l of a man, who finds his road to redemption more or less by tripping over it. But this is a darker, more ambitious thing. It's also very funny.
The narrator, Harry Silver, is a rut-stuck academic, childless, married to the hard-working, often absent Claire. We meet him as he and his sister-in-law, Jane, struggle to clear up at the fag-end of an abundant Thanksgiving meal. Harry's brother George – 11 months younger, a successful TV executive with anger management issues – is holding court among friends and family. George and Jane's pre-teen children, Nate and Ashley, are absorbed in their handheld devices. "No one," Harry tells us, ambiguously, "noticed that help was needed."
Homes's use of passive verbs becomes more disquieting when George attacks Jane. "A woman has been beaten," Harry tells the 911 operator. "A lamp hit her on the head," George tells fire officers. George did it, but how far is he responsible? Since driving through a red light into another car a couple of nights previously, George has been detained in a psychiatric unit. He has escaped from hospital to find his wife in bed with his brother. So how far does Harry share responsibility for George's crime? Is Jane, who seduced her brother-in-law, entirely the innocent victim?
Complex, nuanced and so engrossing that it makes you wish the real world would go away and leave you to read, the novel follows Harry as he tries to remake his smashed family. The subject could have made for something depressingly sentimental, claustrophobic, bitter, but this is a huge-hearted expansive book, simultaneously nightmare-black and extremely funny. While nudging her readers to chew on issues of responsibility, Homes allows her characters to experience truly absurd situations. The non-traditional psychiatric establishments George is sent to are outrageous, comedic but also unnervingly plausible. George and Harry's mother, bedridden and demented, benefits from an Awakenings-style treatment. And Harry has to manage Nate and Ashley's insistence on making amends to the boy whose parents were killed in the car crash...