Lawrence Osborne (2012) The Forgiven Hogarth, New York; 272 pages; ISBN 978-0-30788903-4
Richard and Dally are a very wealthy gay couple with an opulent holiday mansion on the fringe of the desert in Morocco. They are having a long weekend party and have invited their rich friends and acquaintances, as well as paparazzi to record the event. David and Jo are two of the guests. He is a doctor with chauvinist views and an alcohol problem, and she writes children’s stories though has not published anything for several years. Their relationship is often combative. Driving through the night on unfamiliar roads to the party, David hits and kills a young man who walks onto the road trying to sell fossils. A while later David and Jo roll up at the holiday home with the body in the back seat and the planned weekend of drugs, debauchery and over-indulgence suddenly acquires an inconvenient truth.
Woven into the story is the contrast between the wealth and decadence of those at the party and the grinding poverty and sense of hopelessness among the local population. The latter loathe the lifestyles of the rich and fatuous but at the same time envy their wealth and power. David shows no remorse whatsoever about killing the young man, brushing it off as an accident, but there is a suspicion that he is not being entirely truthful. The Moroccan staff at Richard and Dally’s house are angry at David’s insouciance in the face of tragedy and this feeling soon spreads to the surrounding community.
When an old man from a remote tribe arrives to claim the body of his son, David agrees to go with him to witness the burial and to pay a bribe so the matter will not be pursued by the police. While David is away, Jo finds herself increasingly questioning her marriage and this is spurred by the attentions of an American, Tom Day, and by advice from Richard.
No one is innocent in this tale. We learn that the young man killed by David has a dubious past and that the relationship with his father was troubled. Richard and Dally fail to comprehend how their affluence and lack of concern for local mores are seen by their Moroccan staff and neighbours, and are dismissive when some guests raise the issue. Both David and Jo do things that need to be forgiven, and the dead man’s father is torn between revenge and forgiveness for what has occurred. There is a bigger question of whether the rich, whose wealth derives from exploiting the poor, can in turn be forgiven for their blithe disregard of those around them.
There is resolution for most of the main characters, but you sense that Richard and Dally will continue in their libertine ways because their money allows that irrespective of the circumstances in which they live. Perhaps that is the way of the world.
Lawrence Osborne writes in an evocative and appealing style, capturing the shallowness of the super-rich as well as the stoicism and grim realism of the poor. The plot is tightly structured and there is a sustained low-key tension as the impact of the young man’s death plays out. Will everyone forgive and forget, or are there some things that cannot be forgiven? This question hangs over the narrative right up to the very last page.
Osborne mainly writes non-fiction. I read his book Bangkok Days (North Point Press, 2009) when it was first released. It was a sorry tale of an expat lost in a strange city, lost in love and never really coming to terms with either. I found bits of that book annoying because it showed a poor grasp of some aspects of Thai culture, but at the same time I was greatly impressed by the written style and in the end enjoyed the book immensely. The writing in The Forgiven maintains the high quality. It is a polished novel with well-drawn characters and a gripping story to boot. I found it very hard to put down.