Click here to read reviewer Luan Gaines' take on The Forgiven.
Filled with weary nostalgia, Dr. David Henniger and wife Jo travel to Morocco, their bustling lives in London on pause.
They have accepted an invitation from David’s friend Richard to attend a festive weekend at their million-dollar retreat. Everything about this vacation feels doom-laden, from David’s violent moods caused by his heavy drinking, to Jo’s anger at being boxed in, to their less than enthusiastic attitude toward each other. For
bad-tempered David and fastidious Jo, the sun is too bright and the labyrinth of Tangier's city streets too dark.
Renting an old Camry in an attempt to melt away the petty disputes of the last few weeks, they hope
that the mere fact of movement will resolve their deep spiritual lethargy, or at least delay them from having to face it. Imagining themselves sophisticated and wearing their cynicism as a talisman, Jo and David are faced with an elemental vastness that cares nothing for their conceits in a cultural landscape of troubling strangeness. This is fossil country, a world of concrete and antennas and "wild-eyed men in heavy woolen gowns" who sell the currencies of survival in the form of ammonites and crinoids.
Jo’s confidence in her future suddenly breaks apart when they collide with a boy who happens to be selling fossils by the side of the road. In a terrible state of panic, they arrive at Richard’s compound with the boy’s body in the back of the car. Amid smells “of dust, of misery and disputes,” the excess of the weekend’s sensual delights seem to imprison rather than liberate. Richard is clearly annoyed that his beautiful and meticulously planned way of life is in danger of being destroyed by this moneyed “English
buffoon” and his “passive-aggressive wife.”
The family shows up while Driss, the dead boy, lies in the garage, the father accusing the “infidels” of killing his precious son. Connected by a tumultuous mood, rumors begin to flash as the locals look down on the colorless corpse with determined fascination. Clearly the situation requires a level of diplomacy and tact. While Richard’s housekeeper, Hamid, is inclined to offer help, David doesn’t want an investigation because the kid is a nobody, dirt poor and from some village "so far away." Motivated by a rage that is not clear to either Moroccans or Westerners, events turn into a crisis, threatening to drag all of the characters down into some place over which they have no influence.
Although one emerges from this strange and complex novel as if from a dream, a little reflection makes it clear that our dreams can easily become nightmares. Dimmed by dust and sand, the sun turns into a formidable enemy
reinforcing the desert's unforgiving quality. While for most of the book the prime characters are fundamentally unpleasant, the lasting impression is of an eerie, spectral beauty coupled with the exotic indifference of nature. The real change take place in the minds of Jo, David, and Richard, who face an immensity of experience they cannot even hope to understand, much less prepare themselves for. Richard and his partner, Dally, are exhausted by David’s actions as he becomes a “bringer of jinxes and bad luck.”
Written in beautifully nuanced prose complete with vivid descriptions of place, there is nothing subtle about this tale’s message. A quiet unease hangs over the action, reinforcing the notion of Western arrogance in a world full of life and death but also rich in ruined emotional fragments. Men with agonizingly blank faces trudge by the roadside, and David ends up in the depths of the desert, embarking on a journey of reluctant contrition. Jo is left alone to trace her own way through her marriage, her rage and her forgiveness while attempting to discover what really matters in her life.
Reminiscent of Paul Bowles, the real setting of The Forgiven is not the vast, uncharted Moroccan desert but the vast, uncharted reaches of the human heart. For Osborne’s characters, escape beckons like a promise as they struggle to find the life that might fulfill them while also grappling with the notion of where they truly belong.