Attention displaced bookworms! Our book review columnist, Beth Green, is back. An American who lives in Prague, Beth mixes booklust with wanderlust in equal measures, which gives her just the right background for reviewing recent book releases on behalf of international creatives.
Thanks, M.L.! And, hello again, Displaced Nationers. With the arrival of fall in the Northern hemisphere, I find myself in the mood to dig into some darker, heavier—more Halloweeny, shall we say?—material.
As a long-term traveler, third-culture kid, current expat, or all of the above in some cases, each of us has at some point or another faced a cultural divide we’ve found it difficult, if not impossible, to cross. Maybe it came down to a clash of religious or political beliefs. Or was it something to do with wealth? There are privileges that come with being an expat—and that, ironically, can cause discomfort.
But perhaps one of the most harrowing breaches of trust occurs when people possess differing concepts of justice.
Lawrence Osborne’s novel, The Forgiven, wraps all three of these tough-to-tackle subjects into a compelling tale centered around one darkly beautiful “what if”:
What if you accidentally committed a crime in another country?
Every traveler’s worst nightmare
Osborne’s protagonists, David and Jo Henniger, are a wealthy middle-aged London couple who have grown frustrated with each other and jaded about life in general. David is a society doctor in Chelsea who has just lost a malpractice suit and is also beginning to lose patients. Jo is a children’s book writer who hasn’t written a book in some time.
To get a change of scene, and perhaps a new lease on life, the couple sets off to attend a lavish party being thrown by one of David’s school friends, Richard, and his partner, Dally, at their ritzy retreat in the Moroccan desert. It’s a wild weekend-long affair tony enough to have photographers from the New York society pages chronicling it.
Now, that doesn’t sound like my travel scene, but Osborne makes it clear that what happens to Henningers could happen to any of us who dare to venture into unknown lands, where the inhabitants have different religious beliefs to ours, are poorer, and possess an unfamiliar sense of justice.
Jo to David: “I shouldn’t let you, Stumblebum.”
Overriding Jo’s objections, David decides to do the drive from Tangier through the desert in the night even though he has just consumed a bottle of wine.
Jo sulks but lets him drive.
Long after dark, while the Hennigers are trying to navigate the unfamiliar desert terrain, two Moroccan boys leap into the road ostensibly selling fossils though possibly intending to highjack the vehicle. David runs in to one of the young men, killing him. The other boy runs away.
Osborne sets up an unforgettable scene as David and Jo make their entrance to an extravagant expat party with a dead body on the back seat of their car. Not knowing what to do or how the Moroccan police will respond, the Hennigers have taken the corpse with them.
For the hosts, the situation is an embarrassment and a source of annoyance. For their Western guests, it’s a rude interruption and a source of gossip. For Moroccans like Hamid, the head servant of Richard and Dally’s estate, it’s a tragedy that brings out his deep loathing of Western values. For the family of the boy, who arrive the following day to collect the body, it’s both tragedy and crime.
But for David and Jo, it will prove life changing.
Jo to Day (another guest): “It’s like going through the Looking Glass.”
This story, rather than showing how travel erases our differences, puts the notion of “otherness” into high relief. The couple who host the party and many of their friends see Moroccans as as objects of curiosity, wisdom, servitude, and lust. David, less cosmopolitan than his hosts, falls back on traditional colonial values, regarding Morocco and Moroccans as inscrutable and inferior.
By the same token, the Moroccans in the story can’t fathom the Westerners’ lifestyles or motives. They are “unimaginable human beings,” infidels—people who don’t eat with their fingers, who don’t believe in God.
Driss, the young man who is struck and killed by David, wants desperately to break away from the life his father had. He comes from a Berber family that lives in a remote outpost of the Sahara, where children must slave away hacking out Trilobites all day long, with the hope of selling them to Western millionaires.
Driss’s father, Abdellah, more than anything else wants to avenge “the fact that he simply had never known his son at all.”
When Abdellah and his brothers arrive to pick the body up for burial, they demand to meet David. They ask that he travel with them to make atonement. Richard and Dally, keen to get on with the party, assure him that it will be for the best.
Jo to herself: “Who knew what here was artificial and what was indigenous?”
The Forgiven is a tribute to Osborne’s roots as a world-class travel writer and chronicler of the expat life. He takes us behind the scenes and into the inner lives of Moroccans as well as of the expats who choose to live in that part of the world.
Take, for instance, Osborne’s account of Moroccan versus British pessimism:
“The men of the desert know everything,” Hamid said once, like a quote out of Lawrence of Arabia. But they didn’t, really. They were just efficient pessimists, and therefore astute readers of human nature. They always assumed the worst, and that made them correct nine times out of ten. Their pessimism, however, was not like David’s. David was someone who believed that the past was superior to the present, and that was a different sort of pessimist. It was not the entire past that was superior, of course; it was mostly just the British nineteenth to the mid-twentieth century.
Or this passage about how the Moroccan villagers tend to regard Richard and Dally and their wild parties:
It was admitted that they were wealthy and that they spent their money in an exceedingly unwise and profligate way, and that this was much to the advantage of the people.
Jo to Richard: “I dare say I won’t be the same again…”
The story maintains momentum by swinging between Western and Moroccan cultures, leaving the reader almost breathless, not always sure of their footing.
As readers, we guess but aren’t sure if the lumpish David, who is clearly an alcoholic, is still drunk on his midnight drive. Did he mean to hit the young man? And, the victim of the accident—can we say he’s a victim? Flashbacks to the youth’s bravado-filled conversations with a younger, impressionable friend paint him as an unstable character, full of hatred, with a shady past…
Jo, David’s long-suffering wife, is also an enigma. An aging beauty, she feels isolated from the young, frivolous women at the party. Does she love David, or want to leave him? Does she care if justice is exacted? Or does she care only that she be, as the title suggests, forgiven?
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Not wishing to give away any more of the plot, I’ll end by reiterating: Displaced Nationers, in your own experience, which topics tend to open up the widest cultural divides?
Let me also leave you with the epigraph from the novel:
“Many roads do not lead to the heart.” —Moroccan Proverb
Until next time—oh and please drive safely!
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Thanks, Beth! I’ve read The Forgiven and am still haunted by it. Lawrence Osborne is a contemporary writer with a deep understanding of what it means to feel “displaced” by one’s travels. Reading the book gave me thrills and chills, not just for the story but for the beauty and precision of his prose. Readers, does this sound like a book for you?
Beth Green is an American writer and English teacher living in Prague, Czech Republic. She grew up on a sailboat and, though now a landlubber, continues to lead a peripatetic life, having lived in Asia as well as Europe. Her personal Web site is Beth Green Writes, and she is about to launch a new site called Everyday Travel Stories. To keep in touch with her in between columns, try following her on Facebook and Twitter. She’s a social media nut!
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