David and Jo Henniger arrive in Morocco to spend a weekend with old friends, Richard and Dally, at their sumptuous home deep in the desert. David, an alcoholic, can’t resist drinking wine during the drive and they set off again on the remainder of their long journey too late and darkness descends. Without proper directions they lose their way and when two boys jump out at them holding fossils for sale, David panics and crashes into one of them, killing him, then chases the other up the hillside. Shaken, they carry on their journey with the body of the boy on the backseat. When they arrive word has already spread amongst the local people that one of the infidels has killed a boy. Richard and Dally attempt to keep their weekend party on track, but when the boy’s father arrives from his far off desert home the tension between the two cultures deepens. David must atone for his actions, but it’s not clear how far he will need to go to do so.
The Forgiven, the second novel of Lawrence Osborne who has also published six books of non fiction and a short story ‘Volcano’, selected for Best American Short Stories, is about the clash of cultures, between East and West, Muslim and infidel. The difference between the two cultures encapsulated by David as he observes the boy’s father:
“’They’re not even on the same planet.’ Their planet bore only an extraordinarily slight resemblance to his.”
Each side of the cultural divide feels superior and their disdain for each other is highlighted by the tragic accident in which Driss dies. But in the harsh sun of the Moroccan desert all is not as it seems. Just as the preppers in the mountains that loom around the house lift ancient fossils out of the ground, so prejudice, insecurity and passion is rediscovered in each of the characters as they face the consequences of David’s unforgivable act.
Osborne’s writing is well observed and tightly controlled. The narrative preceding the scene where David hits and kills the boy is perfectly paced, building the sense of approaching doom until the reader can hardly bear the tension. When it finally happens, however, the sense of foreboding isn’t relieved, but increased further and we see the future for David and Jo mapped out already:
‘It was a detonation of some kind that lasted only for a split second but seemed to last for minutes, in the course of which her confidence in the future broke apart and died.’
Osborne excels in his precise use of language. Every word works hard as it shifts the reader’s perspective between the characters. In a lesser writer’s hands this constant shift of point of view would make for an uneasy read, but Osborne is a gifted writer able to guide his readers seamlessly through the heads of his many characters with the use of a single word such as ‘mercifully’ or ‘fab’ that tells us all we need to know about the character whose eyes we are seeing the events through at that particular time. As the perspective shifts between the characters and their prejudices, the reader is forced to make their own judgment on the events. This novel is no easy ride, but it’s fast and exhilarating and constantly worth the effort needed to keep up with the characters.
The characters themselves are hard to like. David in particular doesn’t command our sympathy, but he’s not alone and that’s Osborne’s strength: no one character is set above the others, they are all flawed, no one measures up to the person they would wish to be, but they don’t truly understand their shortcomings and in the space between their vision of themselves and ours of them comes intense drama. In the end it is for the reader to decide who is forgiven and who is not.
According to Osborne’s website he has lived a ‘nomadic life, moving to New York City and then to Mexico, Istanbul and Bangkok, where he currently resides’. His obvious love of travel and the otherness of foreign places shines through in his writing. This is the work of a man whose eye is always observing, always seeing, hearing, smelling every detail of the world around him and the result is evocative prose carrying the reader into the minutiae of Osborne’s creation:
‘They [the Moroccans] were bone dry and minimal in some way, like pieces of driftwood that have been whittled down to their essential shapes,’
‘The different modulation of the Moroccan voices made them carry far.’
As well as the obvious theme of the clash of the ancient and the modern, the book also serves to illustrate the nature and meaning of marriage and relationships. The marriage of David and Jo is not a happy one, but it is lasting and at the end there is a sense of forgiveness and understanding between the two of them. The homosexual relationship between Richard and Dally is also portrayed with all its flaws and seen through the eyes of Hamid, their Moroccan servant, it can seem sordid, but there are moments of real tenderness between them: the two of them walking to the waterfall to spend the afternoon reading poetry to each other and as is so often the case the judgment of them falls to the reader.
The ending is sharp, unexpected and inevitable and brings together the themes of forgiveness and retribution that permeate the story: the work of a writer in full control of his story and plot.
Any Cop?: The Forgiven is a wonderful book that explores human morality, set against a harsh and unforgiving background, skilfully and beautifully evoked with precise prose.