Published by Hogarth
Publication date: September 25th 2012
Genres: Contemporary, Cultural, Fiction, Literary
The suburbs of Tangiers were ruined, but the gardens were still there. And so were the crippled lemon trees and olives, the dogged disillusion and empty factories, the smell of seething young men.
A sybaritic weekend in the Saharan desert of Morocco, at a fantastically renovated fortress compound. Richard and Dally have invited friends from around the globe and for Londoners, David and Jo, it seems the perfect antidote to a marriage that is fraying. That is, right up until the moment when, in the midst of an argument and perhaps too much alcohol, David hits a man who runs out into the road in the middle of nowhere as they are lost on their way to the party. They arrive in the early morning hours with the man’s body in the backseat and what was supposed to be a carefree weekend is transformed into a tension filled drama in The Forgiven.
What follows are the outer workings of the situation—the body is removed, the police are contacted, and the incident is dismissed as an accident, while the reality shifts in the same way as the sand. Why is the young man without identification? Was he alone or not? The matter appears to be closed but author Lawrence Osborne expands the circle of consciousness of the act beyond Jo and David to include all the staff at the fortress, the hosts, and eventually, the young man’s father, Abdellah, when he shows up to claim the body. Everyone has a response and in prose that is frank and harsh, Osborne exposes the extreme prejudice on both sides. To the servants and family, everyone at the fortress are infidels and even as they serve them, they view them with eyes and hearts that are cold and vengeful. For the Americans and Brits, and especially David himself, these people are barbarians, as shown by the fact that they live in such deprivation. He hardly believes them capable of human emotion.
When it is suggested that the only possible retribution is that David accompany the father and his friends back to their home and attend the burial of the man he killed the tension increases. For everyone at the party, and David’s wife, it seems an equitable and respectful solution. Jo stays behind and encounters her own demons regarding her marriage.
She sometimes wondered if she really hated him. You know, she’d say to herself, that jittery hatred that is a perfect counterfeit of an exhausted, dissolving love. You can’t hate a man simply because you let him in, and then he didn’t do what he was supposed to do.
For David, who grudgingly agrees to go only to appease his hosts, the journey across the desert only fortifies his belief in his own innocence. He sees no beauty in the desert or people.
…it seemed like a landscape of madness equivalent to what he imagined was going on inside Abdellah’s head. Full of life, but dead; rich in forms, but monotonous.
The Forgiven is a lean elegant work reminiscent of Fitzgerald in its ability to set the mood and of Paul Bowles’ The Sheltering Sky for the way it captures both the beauty and desolation of the desert. This is not to say it is a derivative work, for Osborne’s voice is his own and he builds this tale so well. As a travel writer, he lived in Morocco for several years and based the story on true events. He says,
“It resonated with what I remembered of my own sometimes difficult relations when staying in the Sahara—that feeling of not knowing where you are, or not knowing if the surface and depth of other people are aligned or whether they exist in the same context as you do.”
This unbalanced, out-of-touch feeling comes across on each page of The Forgiven. The book is marvelously constructed and, like the desert and its people, remains enigmatic right up until the last page.