The Forgiven

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 party given annually 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.