Click here to read reviewer Michael Leonard's take on The Forgiven.
Osborne has created a small masterpiece bred in cultural conflict. The setting is the vast desert landscape of the Moroccan Sahara, where a careless Brit, David Henniger, and his wife, Jo, race toward a weekend bacchanal with David’s former college mate, Richard Galloway, and his American lover, Dally Margolis. The two wealthy men have built an oasis for guests among the ruins of a former enclave. Arguing with Jo, fueled by too much wine at dinner, the speeding David barely has time to register the shapes of two natives approaching the rented vehicle on a winding stretch of road, innately fearful of the strangers’ intent while giving vent to a natural assumption of superiority. As a result of the encounter, one man is dead, the other escaped in the hills. David and Jo arrive at Richard’s party with a dead young Muslim in the back seat: “A Muslim has been killed by a Christian. The mind could not accept it entirely.”
Still reeking of alcohol and hubris, David appeals to his host, unaware that Richard thinks of him as “a Viking with silverware” and a pathetic drunk. Their past association wears thin as the couple descends on the partygoers with an air of drama certain to bring a pall of discomfort to the festivities. Osborne portrays Henniger as an unlikable protagonist, an emotional relic of the East India Company convinced of his native exceptionalism, blithely bickering with a woman equally unhappy with the evolution of their marriage. It is only human to want this character to come face to face with his moral Armageddon, to suffer a wake-up call in proportion to the seriousness of his actions. Unfortunately, the potential for real insight is doubtful in a man so chronically accustomed to rationalizing his bad behavior, remorseful misgivings easily annihilated by alcohol, quelling the stirrings of a flabby conscience.
The authorities properly assuaged by the party hosts, the real drama occurs with the arrival of the grieving father and the men from the dead boy’s remote village, where the mind-numbing, generational labor of removing fossils from the face of a cliff is the only source of revenue. Whether the young man was offering a fossil for sale or planning to rob the foreigners is a moot point, although Osborne includes enlightening chapters describing the young man’s evolution from dutiful son to rebel aching for a wider experience of the world. Now David is confronted by the ascetic face of a father who has lost his only son. In light of such stark grief, when the father requests that David return to the village for the boy’s burial, he has no argument.
Leaving the disinterested revelers behind (Jo among them), the focus shifts to David’s journey through a netherworld of poverty and blowing sand, mile after mile of desert until the village is reached in the farthest corner, in the shadow of the mountain where generations of men eke a meager living from unyielding stone, sending their children up suspended on ropes to contribute to the family’s survival. In this environment, David becomes marginally aware of the vast cultural differences between himself and the man who sits in judgment of his actions. At times terrified and others defiant, injured or misunderstood, he remains unable to accept the consequences of his own actions, subconsciously manufacturing excuses for failure in lieu of real insight.
David’s return to Richard and Dally’s house party and the father’s ultimate decision regarding his fate play out with brilliant subtlety, David’s interior life askew if not permanently breached, the future uncertain. Some sense of detente has been reached in the damaged protagonist’s psyche, if only obscurely: “It must be the unconscious at work again. The unconscious working as a noose.” Provocative, unsettling, The Forgiven will leave you breathless.