Toxic Masculinity and Passivity in “May We Be Forgiven” by A.M. Homes.
I picked up this book expecting great things and in many ways I wasn’t disappointed, but it is also a strangely unsatisfying read. Warning this review may contain spoilers as it discusses the themes and some of the main events in the story.
Harry is the main protagonist. He is almost entirely passive, pushed through the narrative by other people’s requests and needs. Even when he “comes into his own” at the end, he still isn’t a proactive character. While this passivity frustrates me as a reader, it works as a buffer to the nastier and more toxic elements of masculinity portrayed in the book.
Harry’s brother, George, is a portrait of entitlement, bully culture and privilege. In contrast we see Harry constantly struggling against his own anger and trying to do the right thing, which mostly seems to be doing what other people tell him to do. He begins as a rather pathetic and empty character but as he progresses he gains a warmth and selflessness that is beautiful to witness. His decisions throughout the first half seem to be based on the route of least resistance, but as the story gathers momentum we watch him blossom into a carer, someone at the hub of other people’s lives, enabling them to make better decisions than he could.
The style of narrative reminds me of American Psycho, in that it is disconnected and emotionless, stark and barren, but it does reflect the modern disconnect from the rest of society, especially as Harry, like Patrick, is privileged but unloved.
Other family members seem equally disconnected and extraordinarily selfish. That Harry, at a stage of his life when he barely seems to be able to take care of himself, becomes the guardian of his niece and nephew by default, and no one seems to care, really drives home the lack of family and social values in this society. Yet Homes uses this to show us how a life spent caring for others becomes fuller than a life of selfish waste. By the end Harry is a much happier person than he seems at the start, and that is his journey, one pushed upon him, but embraced and cherished.
The female characters are all shown to be sexually active and able to communicate their desires effectively. Homes makes no judgement about this, which is delightfully refreshing, but they are shown to make decisions that make no or little sense and are potentially harmful both to themselves and others. The exploration of sexuality in cyberspace is fascinating and is probably the theme I will take away from the book. The only character who is portrayed in a completely positive way is Jane and this is only after she is killed. She reaches a sainthood that she could not have attained had she lived. This arc reflects Harry’s punishment/attrition journey as he takes care of Jane’s children and puts everyone else’s needs in front of his own. His happiness, like her sainthood, comes after a period of punishment. By the end both are forgiven.
In contrast George’s punishment seems very light, but he is never forgiven. In fact we get the feeling that George does not care for or need forgiveness.
The novel leaves us with a sense of hope that the next generation, in the form of Nate, Ashley and Ricardo will make better decisions and be less hampered by toxic masculinity and passivity than the older generation. However, through Nate’s experiences with the South African town of Natesville, we are reminded that people can easily be corrupted and happiness is transitory.
May We Be Forgiven is a unique book and one I feel comfortable recommending, even if was was often uncomfortable to read.