The Forgiven: A Novel

Overview

This stylish, haunting novel by literary travel writer Lawrence Osborne explores the reverberations of a random accident on the lives of Moroccan Muslims and Western visitors who converge on a luxurious desert villa for a decadent weekend-long party.
 
   David and Jo Henniger, in search of an escape from their less than happy lives in London, accept the invitation of their old friends Richard and Dally to attend their ...

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The Forgiven: A Novel

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Overview

This stylish, haunting novel by literary travel writer Lawrence Osborne explores the reverberations of a random accident on the lives of Moroccan Muslims and Western visitors who converge on a luxurious desert villa for a decadent weekend-long party.
 
   David and Jo Henniger, in search of an escape from their less than happy lives in London, accept the invitation of their old friends Richard and Dally to attend their annual bacchanal at their home deep in the Moroccan desert.  On the way, the Hennigers stop for lunch, and the bad-tempered David can't resist consuming most of a bottle of wine.  Back on the road, darkness has descended, David is groggy, and the directions to the Ksar are vague.  Suddenly, two young men spring from the roadside, apparently attempting to interest passing drivers in the fossils they have for sale.  Panicked, David swerves toward the two, leaving one dead on the road and the other running into the hills.

   At the villa, the festivities have begun, and as the night progresses and the debauchery escalates, the large staff of Moroccans increasingly view the revelers as the godless "infidels" they are.  When David and Jo show up late with the dead body of the young man in their car, word spreads among the locals that one of the infidels has committed an unforgivable act.

   Thus the stage is set for a weekend during which David and Jo must come to terms with David's misdeed, Jo's longings, and their own deteriorating relationship, and the flamboyant Richard and Dally must attempt to keep their revelers entertained despite growing tension from their staff and the Moroccan Berber father who comes to claim his son's body.

   As Osborne memorably portrays the privileged guests wrestling with their secrets amidst the remoteness and beauty of the desert landscape, he also gradually reveals the jolting back-story of the young man who was killed and leaves David’s fate in the balance as the novel builds to a shattering conclusion.

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Editorial Reviews

The New York Times
Mr. Osborne's second novel is a sinister and streamlined entertainment in the tradition of Paul Bowles, Evelyn Waugh and the early Ian McEwan…In The Forgiven he has upped his narrative game. This is a lean book that moves like a panther. Even better, Mr. Osborne has a keen and sometimes cruel eye for humans and their manners and morals, and for the natural world. You can open to almost any page and find brutally fine observations.
—Dwight Garner
Publishers Weekly
Osborne’s rich new novel (after the nonfiction Bangkok Days) follows British couple David and Jo Henniger into the Moroccan desert for a debauched weekend at their friends’ palatial ksar. Driving to the estate, David is distracted while arguing with Jo, and consequently hits and kills a young Moroccan. When they arrive at the party, corpse in tow, their hosts help David deal with the police while the servants keep vigil with the body. The next morning, the dead boy’s father, Abdellah, arrives and demands that David return with him to help bury his son. No sooner has David departed and left Jo behind than charming American Tom Day sets his amorous sights on the unhappily married Jo. Meanwhile, Abdellah weighs whether to avenge his son’s death by killing David. Although the Hennigers finally begin to scrutinize their choices (as unflinchingly as Osborne surveys his characters), their repentance may not be enough to sway their fates. With nods to Paul Bowles and Evelyn Waugh, Osborne portrays the vacuity of high society as gorgeously and incisively as he does the unease of cultures thrust together in the unforgiving desert. Agent: Adam Eaglin, the Wylie Agency. (Sept.)
Library Journal
In Osborne's brilliant, unsentimental rendering of contemporary East-West conflict and the imperfect human psyche, there's a lot to forgive and no easy wrap-up. Bilious, alcoholic, chip-on-his-shoulder Englishman David Henniger is driving through the Moroccan night with his wife, Jo, on their way to a fabulously decadent weekend party at the desert villa of sort-of friends Richard and Dally. When two young men step out on the road, evidently hoping to sell fossils, a flustered and contemptuous David strikes and kills one of them. The body is brought to the villa, David is less remorseful than annoyed, and Richard is shocked by David's insensitivity while revealing deep-seated prejudices of his own. The alcohol-swilling, drug-dazed guests swirl away from the guilty couple, and, lest readers assume this is a finger-wagging tale about arrogant Westerners abusing saintly natives, the dead man's past is revealed in occasional flashbacks to be remorseless and ugly. Then the bereaved father appears. VERDICT Novelist and travel writer Osborne has done an extraordinary job of capturing moral complexity, never letting his characters or his readers off easy. The result should be grim reading, but instead it's vivifying. Highly recommended. [See Prepub Alert, 3/22/12.]—Barbara Hoffert, Library Journal
Kirkus Reviews
Violence and debauchery in the Moroccan desert lead to cultural misunderstandings...and to more violence and debauchery. On their way to a weekend of free-wheeling partying sponsored by a gay couple, Richard and Dally, David and Jo Henniger meet up with something both unforeseen and untoward. Late at night, two young Moroccans, putatively selling fossils to tourists, crowd in on the Hennigers' car, and one of them, a young man named Driss, is run over. David checks to see whether Driss is in fact dead, and not knowing quite what to do, he and Jo put the body in the car and take him to the ksour of Richard and Dally's, deep in the Moroccan desert. The situation is complicated by several factors, including David's reputation as a drinker (and he had been consuming alcohol before the accident) and the suspicion of Hamid, a servant, that Westerners are utterly reckless and morally irresponsible. Although Richard feels there's nothing to worry about--for if necessary, the opinion of the local authorities can be bought--Driss' grieving father insists that David return the body and show at least some modicum of guilt and grief. While David is whisked away to Driss' home, Jo remains at Richard and Dally's. She's disgusted with her husband (and actually has been for years) and feels liberated in his absence. David's return in one piece is questionable. Osborne comes up with an ending that's at the same time ironic, surprising and completely fitting. A gripping read with moral ambiguity galore.
From the Publisher
Selected by The Economist as one of the Best Books of the Year 2012

Selected by Library Journal as one of the Year's Best Books 2012

Year's Best Books Chosen by Writers, selected by Lionel Shriver, The Guardian 2012

“A sinister and streamlined entertainment in the tradition of Paul Bowles, Evelyn Waugh and the early Ian McEwan….This is a lean book that moves like a panther. Even better, Mr. Osborne has a keen and sometimes cruel eye for humans and their manners and morals, and for the natural world. You can open to almost any page and find brutally fine observations….surprising and dark and excellent.”
New York Times

“Extraordinarily acute to human nature….Stylishness holds the book together, and makes all the bits of plot machinery feel new again….There are enough ways to read the book that one finishes it and immediately wants to start it again.”
Newsweek

“A perfect storm of a novel.”
Fredericksburg Freelance Star

"A master of the high style" 
The Guardian

"Osborne writes mercilessly, savagely well. He excavates his characters, and the centuries-long cultural rift between the desert people and the Western infidels with a pathologist’s precision, wrapping fear, boredom, forgiveness, judgment, honour and sexual attraction into a novel that plunges with sinister pace towards its denouement." 
The Daily Mail

"Brooding, compelling...There’s a strong, almost old-fashioned moral force at work in Osborne’s novel... At the novel’s dramatic close, you could accuse Osborne of forcing the hand of moral come-uppance just a little too much — but it barely detracts from the tension he has maintained throughout the novel, and the pleasure of his bringing under such scrutiny the unpredictable behaviour of his morally tortuous characters."
The London Sunday Times

“With nods to Paul Bowles and Evelyn Waugh, Osborne portrays the vacuity of high society as gorgeously and incisively as he does the unease of cultures thrust together in the unforgiving desert.”
Publishers Weekly (starred)

“Osborne comes up with an ending that’s at the same time ironic, surprising and completely fitting.  A gripping read with moral ambiguity galore.”
Kirkus Reviews (starred)

“[A] brilliant, unsentimental rendering of contemporary East-West conflict and the imperfect human psyche….Osborne has done an extraordinary job of capturing moral complexity, never letting his characters or his readers off easy. The result should be grim reading, but instead it’s vivifying.  Highly recommended.”
Library Journal (starred)

“In the desert, all life and emotions are stripped to their very core.  In his elegant and incisive second novel, travel-journalist Osborne hauntingly captures this exposed essence in all its inscrutable mystery and dispassionate brutishness.”
Booklist Online

“No mere imitation but a contribution to the shelf on which The Sheltering Sky and The Bonfire of the Vanities also sit, The Forgiven explores the clash of two cultures, each of which feels superior to the other.  Osborne's writing is uncomfortably well observed; his story is sickeningly, addictively headlong.”
—Lionel Shriver, author of We Need to Talk About Kevin

"The Forgiven shines darkly with a rich and mordant fatalism.  Osborne's characters emerge like people in a dream – diamond-sharp but fascinatingly askew.  His prose is gorgeous and precise; the story slices keenly through the exotic haze of its setting.  It's an absolutely brilliant novel – the ending is a shock in the best way."
—Kate Christensen, author of The Epicure's Lament and The Astral
 
“The prose of The Forgiven has a very particular, knowing luminosity, much like the tarnished world it describes.  A beautiful, compelling book to savor line by line.”
—Nikita Lalwani, author of Gifted

The Barnes & Noble Review

An English doctor and his wife drive at night through the Moroccan desert. He is slightly drunk; she is irritated. They have traveled from England to attend a lavish annual party at a ksour, or ancient fortress, owned by an English friend and his American partner. And now they are lost. "He would drive for miles," David Henniger realizes, "waiting to see if he had been right or wrong, and when he was wrong, she would tear him to pieces."

Suddenly, they are no longer alone. "The sand darkened the moon, and the outline of the road disappeared for a moment-she saw two men standing to the left side of the road. They were running toward the car, holding up their hands, and one of them also held up a cardboard sign that read Fossiles?." The sound of metal striking bone is the opening chord of a drama that unfolds with the relentlessness of an ancient myth and the intensity of a psychological thriller.

A man has been killed. Who will pay? And how? These questions are at the heart of Lawrence Osborne's The Forgiven, an elegant, seductive novel that slyly exposes the assumptions blithely made and abruptly overturned when privilege and poverty collide. "They were miserable wretches and he understood it," Jo Henniger thinks when she imagines how a Moroccan servant regards them. "All they had over him was money." And money will surely solve the Hennigers' problem, the problem of the body they have hastily bundled into their rental car.

"A handsome boy, with a tattoo on his right hand," their host notes when his guests arrive with the corpse. The other partygoers — trashy European celebrities and aristocrats — barely notice the shadow that has fallen on their bacchanal of drugs, sex, and booze, even when the police are summoned. But the sudden arrival, out of the desert, of the dead man's father and his tribesmen is another matter. They are impoverished fossil diggers who sell "second-rate trilobites" to tourists, "good Muslims from the scorched corners of the earth who had nothing and who gave nothing either." In the ksour's garage, the father surveys his son's laid-out body, "...and at that moment his mind went away, and his heart with it, and he was left standing like something hanging by a filthy little string, a small animal that has been strung up by a primitive trap and is about to die."

The next scene is one of servants preparing for that evening's dinner, laying out "heavy French forks with agile and hostile minds?" and Osborne, with consummate skill, conducts us from the mind of the grieving father into the thoughts of these boys. Throughout the novel, this writer, who has been understandably compared with Waugh and Greene, restlessly adjusts our perspective, allowing us to see through the eyes of the Hennigers, their hosts, the servants, and the desert dwellers as this morality tale plays out, and as the desert itself seems to reassert its presence. Osborne also gives the dead man, Driss, a life and a story of his own, one that intersects with the lives of the Hennigers not once but twice in the novel's shocking, perfect ending.

Anna Mundow, a longtime contributor to The Irish Times and The Boston Globe, has written for The Guardian, The Washington Post, and The New York Times, among other publications.

Reviewer: Anna Mundow

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780307889034
  • Publisher: Crown Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 9/25/2012
  • Pages: 288
  • Sales rank: 894,846
  • Product dimensions: 5.88 (w) x 8.34 (h) x 0.99 (d)

Meet the Author

Lawrence Osborne is the author of one previous novel, Ania Malina, and six books of nonfiction, including the memoir Bangkok Days. His journalism and short stories have appeared in the New York Times Magazine, the New Yorker, Newsweek, Forbes, Tin House, Harper’s, Conde Nast Traveler, and many other publications. Osborne has led a nomadic life, residing for years in France, Italy, Morocco, the United States, Mexico, and Thailand. He currently lives in Istanbul.

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Read an Excerpt

One

They didn’t see Africa until half past eleven. The mists broke apart and motorboats with European millionaires came swooping out of the blue with Sotogrande flags and a flash of tumblers. The migrants on the top deck began to shoulder their bags, revived by the idea of home, and the look of anxiety that hovered in their faces began to dispel. Perhaps it was just the sun. Their secondhand cars stored in the hull revved as their children scattered about with oranges in their hands, and an energy seemed to reach out from the edge of Africa to the Algeciras ferry, polarizing it. The Europeans stiffened.

Sunbathing in their deck chairs, the British couple were surprised by the height of the land. On the tops of the mountains stood white antenna masts like lighthouses made of wire, and the mountains had a feltlike greenness that made you want to reach out and touch them. The Pillars of Hercules had stood near here, where the Atlantic rushes into the Mediterranean. There are places that are destined to seem like gates. One can’t avoid the sensation of being sucked through a portal. The Englishman, a doctor of a certain age, shaded his eyes with a hand bristling with ginger hairs.

Even with the naked eye, they could make out the snaking outlines of roads that might have been there since Roman times. David Henniger thought, “Perhaps it’ll be easier than we think, this drive. Perhaps it’ll be a pleasure after all.” From a boom box near the flagpole came a few bars of rai, of Paris hip-hop. He watched his wife reading a Spanish paper, flicking the pages back and forth indifferently, then glanced down at his watch. People were waving from the approaching city, raising handkerchiefs and fingers, and Jo took off her shades for a moment to see where she was. He admired the frank confusion written all over her face. L’Afrique.

They went for a beer at the Hotel d’Angleterre. It was not hot. The air was wet with recently broken mist. Con men and pretty “guides” danced around them while the sun drenched the terrace with a smell of varnish and peppercorns and stale beer. A laughing mood dominated the seedy expats and their hangers-on nursing their plates of unshelled nuts and their cooled gins. We were once the most formidable bohemians, their faces said to the newcomers, and now we are delightful, playful shits because we have no choice.

The Hennigers had arranged for an agent to deal with the car rental, a man who would run back and forth with keys and contracts, and while they waited for him, they had a few beers with grenadine and some fried goat cheese cigares. He waited to form an impression. The streets seemed massively solid with their French facades, and there was a gritty shade at their bottom. The girls were swift and insolent, with adultery in their eyes. It wasn’t bad.

“I’m glad we aren’t staying,” she said, biting her lip.

“We’ll stay on the way back. It’ll be interesting.”

He took off his tie. His eyes felt intensely alive somehow and he wondered if she ever noticed these slight alterations of mood, of intention. “I like it,” he thought. “I like it better than she does. Maybe we’ll stay a little after the weekend.”

On the road to Chefchaouen, they didn’t speak. The car rented from Avis Tangier was an old Camry, its brakes soft and its red leather torn. He drove it nervously in his perforated driving gloves, warily avoiding the women in ribboned straw hats who infested the hard shoulder, pushing mules ahead of them with sticks. The sun grew fierce; it was a long road bordered by stones and orange trees, and above it rose the hillside slums, the gimcrack apartment blocks, the antennas that decorate every middle-income city. One couldn’t see the beginning or the end of it. There was just the taste of sea.

All was dust. He drove on doggedly, determined to get out of the city as fast as possible. The light all day had finally worn his eyes down; the road was reduced to a geometric glare alive with hostile movements: animals, children, trucks, broken-down thirty-year-old Mercedes.

The suburbs of Tangier were ruined, but the gardens were still there. And so were the crippled lemon trees and olives, the dogged disillusion and empty factories, the smell of seething young men.

The Hotel Salam in Chefchaouen looked over a river called the Oued el Kebir and a gorge; the road on which it stood, avenue Hassan II, was a steep lane of hotels, for the Marrakech and the Madrid were just next door, and along it the city walls loomed up, white and monkish. The tour buses were already there; the salon was full of Dutch couples feeding upon mountains of turmeric eggs. The Hennigers were not sure whether to enter the hotel lounge and participate in this buffet orgy or to stay aloof. The Dutch looked frantic and disturbed, as if they hadn’t eaten in days. David wondered if they were given sandwiches on their immense buses. They were faintly disgusting, with their big red faces and their beefy adolescent ruminants grazing around the buffet tables. He was hungry himself.

“Let’s eat straightaway,” he said excitedly, “but not here. Perhaps outside, away from the Continental wildebeest? I wonder if one can get a drink that isn’t Pellegrino Citrus?”

Fortunately the Salam had its own terrace and it was not too crowded. They took a table with views and ate their tagine citron with a bottle of cold Boullebemme. It was wine, at least, and he said a silent thank-you to it.

“Should you be drinking?” she asked quietly.

“Oh, it’s just a glass. A glass of fly pee. This stuff is fly pee. Look at it.”

“It’s not fly pee. It’s fourteen percent. You have to drive another five hours.”

She began to devour the salted olives at their table. David always took these sorts of remarks in his stride, and he settled down.

“It’ll make it easier. I know it’s the lame excuse of every alcoholic. But it will.”

“I shouldn’t let you, Stumblebum.”

“I would anyway. The roads are empty.”

“What about the trees?”

There had been eleven years of this sort of contest; the exact, fastidious Jo crossing lances with the bad-tempered David, who always felt that women were out to suppress the peccadilloes that made life half worth living. Why did they do this? Were they envious of life shimmering away with improvised masculine curiosities and pleasures without their consent? One had to ask the question. You could smile or not--it was up to you. Jo was ten years younger than him, a mere forty-one, but she acted like an ancient nanny. She enjoyed reproving him, pulling him back from tiny adventures that would have no consequences even if they were allowed to degenerate to their natural conclusions. “I’d never hit a tree anyway,” he thought. “Never in a thousand years. Not even in my sleep.” She swallowed half a glass of the raw Moroccan wine and he raised an arch eyebrow. She wiped her mouth defiantly. The blood rushed into her brow, into the corners of her mouth.

“You always get what you want, David. It’s our schema, isn’t it? You always do what you bloody want.”

“I’m not putting your life in danger.” His voice was a little pleading. “That’s absurd.”

We’ll see if it’s absurd, she thought.

“Also,” he went on coolly, “it’s patently not true. I very rarely, as you put it, get to do what I want. Most of the time, I am following orders.”

At the bottom of the gorge stood white houses with jars of salted lemons on their roofs. Around them, dogs barked in the palm groves, and the waiters at the Salam seemed subtly ashamed of them. One of the Dutch beauties floated in the little terrace pool, rotating slowly under the first stars while gazing at her own toes. He watched her with meticulous curiosity. Her breasts nicely rounded, parting the waters. The dinner was short and efficient, because their minds were racing ahead to the journey instead of enjoying the present moment. Afterward, he finished the remains of the Boullebemme and cleaned his teeth with a pick from the center of the table. Something in his voice was not quite right.

“I feel like going for a walk. Let’s get coffee up at the kasbah, no? The waiters here are making me feel gloomy.”

Avenue Hassan II led straight into the Bab El Hammar and the kasbah by way of the lovely place El Makhzen. In the first hour of dimming, the menfolk were out in force on the long square filled with trees, eager for debate in crisply laundered djellabas; they stood around in circular groups holding hands, fingering rosaries behind their backs.

There was something shrill but paradoxically quiet about the masculine cleanliness, the speed of the children whistling about with shopping bags and peaches. The whitewash, the angular shadows. She gripped his hand, the marriage ring biting into his palm, and she held on to it as if it would provide long, consecutive moments of stability inside this flux. Did she need him more for a little while, just enough to get through this town? The petty disputes of the last few weeks melted away and in the end it was all just words and words, she thought, words that melt away easily as soon as you are in a strong enough sun and you are moving. They found a lopsided square with a fig tree where there was a Cafe du Miel with tables that all leaned to one side on the slope on cedarwood legs. It offered no drinks, but strong coffee with grains and a good smoke, and he felt at home at once. There was a saucer of cardamom seeds for the coffee and a plate of almond pastries. Small acts of delicacy. The streets were patriarchal, if you liked, but they possessed intimacy. The trees made delicate shadows on the underfoot stones. He stretched and dropped a cardamom pod into his coffee.

“I feel less tired now. I think this afternoon was the worst stretch. If we leave at seven, we can be there by midnight or so.”

“Do you think they’ll wait up?”

“They’ll wait up. We’re a large percentage of their weekend emotionally speaking. They’ll be boozing long past midnight.”

Or all night, she thought hopefully.

“It’s not a military timetable,” he said with more conciliation. “If you want to stay here a night, I don’t mind. I was thinking . . . two nights of party might well be more than enough.”

She shook her head.

“I don’t want to, I want to get to Richard’s place.”

In a moment, her eyes brimmed over, and she felt an irrational hatred of the whole situation. It was the usual things. The heat and the thick coffee and the stickiness in the air and the tone in his voice. That clipped and impatient twang seemed to go so perfectly with the way the men in the cafes stared at them with their eyes held back in some way, yet sharpened by their provincial curiosity and used like pointed sticks to pry. She had thought a trip through the desert would give her ideas for a new book, but such calculations rarely pan out. What kind of new book after all? Instead, she was beginning to feel boxed in by the schedule to which they had to stick, and the men in the street stared and stared and their hands played with rosaries on the surfaces of the tables. They stared so hard she felt her center of gravity giving way. They stared with a blank hatred, but it was equally possible that it was not hatred but a sense of unconscious superiority that did not even need to be conscious in order to put the other in her place.

“It’ll be all right,” he said tersely. “We know they’re repressed and enraged. They treat their woman like donkeys. For them, you are an escaped donkey.”

She looked away, and she was gripping her napkin.

“I hate it when you say that.”

“Why? It’s true, isn’t it?”

“It doesn’t matter if it is.”

“I would say it mattered,” he countered. “I would say it mattered if they disliked your presence because of your sex.”

“I’m sure it isn’t that. And you have no idea how they treat their women--none.”

He laughed and picked up a cardamom with two fingers. She was being sophistic.

“Well, have it your way, Miss Feminist.”

Wanting to show off his French, he asked the owner of the Cafe du Miel seated at the next table how hot it was in the desert. The Moroccans went into the usual exaggerations.

“Vous allez souffrir, vous allez voir. Mais c’i beau, c’i tres beau.”

On the walk back to the Salam, he took her hand. The dogs were so loud in the gorge that he couldn’t relax; his mind began to turn with a pitiless inertia all its own. Had it been a good idea, he wondered, this extravagance, this sudden departing, this rush to amusement? All for the sake of fun and friendship and three days under a fiercer sun. He knew she hadn’t wanted to come. But something in him enjoyed the coercion he was imposing upon her. He liked pissing people off when he thought their irritations sprang from their rigidity and hypocrisy, and hers certainly did. He thought of himself as a cleansing agent, a purifier of other people’s prejudice. She would be better off for it in the long run, he was certain, and as he thought this, a delicious pity crept into his calculations, a grim tenderness that had no actual purpose relative to his wife. It was like tending a pasture, clipping the edges with a sharp pair of shears. Keeping order with love and keeping the monsters at bay.

The Spanish Mosque was lit up, the water on the terrace pool flashing as the wind hit it. Two men walked arm in arm down Hassan II, whispering intently. No women on the streets now; it was the hour of men. Their eyes were upon the tall blonde in her worn cotton dress and red sandals, her jewelry and freckles. There was evidently a pleasure simply in tracking such a gazelle (that was the word they liked). Her gait that hoped to conceal itself from sexual curiosity, not quite a woman’s sassy walk. They could easily guess that she was a writer, an intellectual, just as they could guess that he was a doctor and a bore.

David and Jo got into the car. He opened the Michelin map and struggled to find the fine red line that was the route they had to follow without fail. She kissed his cheek, and there was sand between her lips, just as there was sand on his face. It was already everywhere, and it irritated him. The granules itched inside his ears.

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