September 2007

Drew Nellins

fiction

Forgive Me by Amanda Eyre Ward

The first two pages of Amanda Eyre Ward’s novel, Forgive Me, are the worst in the book, and the last twenty are the best. A structure like that doesn’t make for a particularly auspicious start, but it certainly makes for an admirable middle and end. Forgive Me, begins as the story of Nadine Morgan, an ambitious American foreign correspondent, living and working in Mexico. When she’s attacked by a mob of men in the course of tracking down a lead, Nadine’s life as she has known it for the past decade comes to a sudden stop.

Nadine awakens in her father’s yet-to-be opened bed and breakfast on Cape Cod where she’s nursed by her father’s girlfriend, and is both irritated and injured far more severely than she’d like to admit. When Law and Order episodes can no longer hold her attention, the doctor-imposed downtime means that Nadine is forced to reckon with some of the mistakes she has made and the people she has hurt in recent (and not so recent) years. For Nadine, who spends all of her time working and on the move, the pain of stopping to consider her actions far exceeds the pain of her broken ribs and banged-up wrist -- and leads finally to her return to South Africa where, years before, she did her most important work, covering the beginning of apartheid’s end. It is also the site of the unfinished emotional business that has kept her running away from herself ever since she left.

Nadine’s story is relayed with such clarity that it’s easy to miss how wonderfully complex and unconventional Ward’s telling is. She uses just about every method at her disposal, experimenting with tense and shifting her narrative attention from Nadine to other characters when it serves the story. At her best, these transitions can be so seamless as to be unnoticeable. Nadine’s story is told in an always interesting variety of ways. Ward reveals her story through flashbacks and phone calls, articles and diary entries, in addition to the standard third person omniscient perspective. Though much of the book takes place in the post-Apartheid Cape Town of 1995, Ward cleverly toys with her reader’s sense of time, so that by the end, we have seen her main character in three different decades (and three very different phases) of her life.

Ward’s themes are so broad and varied that one might worry that she won’t be able to treat them all with appropriate gravity, but she does an incredible job of giving each of them weight in this relatively short book. In particular, there is genuine power in her reflections on the mysterious nature of motherhood, daughterhood, and the surrogates who show up to fill the gaps.

The author also examines the compromises of domesticity with frankness and sensitivity and, likewise, the tradeoffs associated with a faster-paced life.

In all of this, Ward somehow manages to consider the violence and oppression of apartheid. Those scenes dealing with South Africa serve as an intelligent meditation on the ways in which people can be driven to acts that are simultaneously deeply irrational and completely understandable. (The degree to which the title, Forgive Me, informed my reading cannot be overstated.)

I was struck more than once by the sense that one more draft or close edit might have changed it from a good book to a great one, but, as it stands, Forgive Me is worth reading, and Ward’s talent and willingness to take on big themes suggests great things about her future in fiction.

Forgive Me by Amanda Eyre Ward
Random House
ISBN: 0345494466
256 Pages