Why do a few mystery novels manage to have weight and meaning while the vast majority are forgotten a week after their reading? The difference is not plot. Any halfway intelligent reader can usually guess what is going to happen next. It is also rarely characters. Characters might be what every deluded mystery writer believes makes his novel different, but the truth is that this is not the case. Read even Graham Greene and one begins to have the sinking feeling that the guilt-soaked figures shuffling through his “entertainments” are all of-a-type. Partially the flatness of characters must have to do with the very nature of a mystery novel. The genre demands that the writer produce a series of strong effects and because we can see them coming, these effects tend to feel artificial and they make even the most rounded of characters seem fake. The difference between a good and a mediocre mystery is almost always a matter of style.
The Forgiven is Lawrence Osborne’s second novel; his first was Ania Malina, in 1986. Considering how wonderful The Forgiven is and how much promise Ania Malina showed, one has to wonder why the author has not been publishing more.
The book opens in the Moroccan countryside. It is night. A car is racing through the dark on a hilly road. Inside, a British couple argues. The husband is driving and he is a little drunk and they are lost. A young man suddenly appears on the side of the road. He appears to be selling fossils, something common to the area. To be doing so late at night is strange, however. Still, the people here are poor. But could he be planning a carjacking? Carjackings have been occurring regularly. We enter this situation and then something happens. It is not exactly clear what because the next series of events are expressed through shocked dialogue. Has the man jumped into the road? Did the drunk driver lose control? And then the narrative leaps.
Now we are at a party in a desert fort. This is the party that the couple had been driving toward. A vastly wealthy gay European couple has invited 20 or so of the beautiful and the rich to their home. There are models, there is a lord arriving by helicopter. The New York Times has sent a photographer to cover the party. And then the couple we have left by the side of the road arrives. In the back of their car is a body, its feet bloody and legs snapped.
The body is taken to the garage. One of the saddest and most lovely scenes in a book full of lovely scenes is the body on a table in the garage.
The Moroccan staff of the fort begins to visit. The roaming point of view lets us know the anger that they feel. One man thinks that Moroccans are like flies to the Europeans. Anger begins to fester, as does fear. The woman whose husband was driving the car thinks that the Moroccans look at the Europeans as if they were flies. And then, just as the anger appears ready to explode, a Jeep appears at the door of the fort. Inside the Jeep are men with guns. Among them is the dead man’s father. They have come to claim the body and also to make the driver of the car an offer.
As even this brief description of the plot shows, the novel suggests many other books. The car accident reminds the reader of The Bonfire of the Vanities, of the end of The Great Gatsby, of Mohsin Hamid’s Moth Smoke. The Moroccan locale has the feel of The Sheltering Sky. The ongoing party in the fort while problems from the outside press in reminds one both of The Decameron and also The Satyricon. And the grieving father is almost Shakespearean.
What makes the book feel of one piece, though, is the narrative voice: cynical, tender, extraordinarily acute to human nature. The couple fights in the car about how the other’s choice of music shows small-mindedness and sentimentality. Do they believe the things they are saying or are they choosing to slash each other? The landscape is described in weirdly visceral imagery. Red dirt looks like a liver. A man with his head bent toward an arm is compared to a parrot. The extraordinary stylishness holds the book together, and makes all the bits of plot machinery feel new again. If one were asked what the book is about, one would have to say it’s about the telling.
The book demands to be read in many ways. The characters can be read as alienated from each other and in this reading, the book becomes a mood piece. One can also read the novel as being about the remnants of colonialism. Another reading would be a more hopeful one of people taking the worst situation and using it to mend themselves. There are enough ways to read the book that one finishes it and immediately wants to start it again. This novel, appearing after a 26-year silence, makes one hope that there won’t be another such long gap before the next.