Not many novels that begin with a series of brutal murders can be described as redemptive, but A M Homes — author of 'This Book Will Save Your Life' — has never taken the predictable line.
Despite fiercely coveting her privacy, she wrote a memoir about the reappearance, in her 30s, of her decidedly uncovetable birth parents. One novel, 'The End of Alice', was about a child molester. And now her sixth, 'May We Be Forgiven', brings us Harry Silver, left to reassemble a family life after an ill-advised roll in the hay with his brother’s wife ends in calamity.
Homes is an exceptional presence even among writers. She is consumed with fascination for her fellow man. Half-way through a cross-continental publicity tour and jet-lagged, she is simultaneously able to monitor the progress of the Korean family behind us making their way through a multi-course, utterly silent breakfast, maintain a running commentary on the minor celebrity emerging from a limo outside our window, and express her bewilderment that the historical connection between Richard Nixon and the now-mighty trade routes to China isn’t a matter of greater public interest (both Nixon and China play important roles in the new novel).
Having breakfast with Washington-raised Homes resembles one of the particular pleasures to be found in her work. She excites curiosity in the quotidian — the anonymous diners around us sharpen into intriguing characters. She often takes photographs of people on the streets, a conscious variation on the traditional writer’s notebook.
'May We Be Forgiven' marks Homes’s coming out as a “Jewish novelist” — though her fascinating memoir, 'The Mistress’s Daughter', addresses her Jewish identity, this is the first time it has really featured in her fiction. At this point in her career, it felt, she says, like a significant gesture.
Harry copes with unexpected, lopsided dignity as he finds himself in charge of two children: Ashley, who turns to religion, and Nate, who needs someone to throw him a barmitzvah — an event that turns out to excruciating, farcical, touching and held in a rural African village.
Although she is not religious, Judaism does play a significant role in Homes’s life. Last year, she went on a “synagogue-crawl” over the High Holydays, culminating in a service in East Hampton where the rabbi had a pile of bumper stickers he displayed at various points of his sermon.
She once phoned a synagogue in Los Angeles to see if she could come for Yom Kippur, only to be told she needed a “letter of good standing” from her own shul in New York before they’d sell her a ticket. Because of the time change, her synagogue had already closed. “I wrote a very strongly worded letter because, in my understanding, that was completely antithetical to everything that I believed Judaism to stand for. Here I was, literally the traveller, and they wouldn’t let me in, even though they’d open the door for Elijah, who” — she grins — “is invisible.”
Nonetheless, she once thought it might be nice if a child of hers became a religious leader. At present, her daughter Juliet, aged nine, seems enthused by the idea of becoming a farmer, although “it’s too soon to commit.” Whatever she grows up to be, for now, one can only envy Juliet her bedtime stories. “I live mostly in my head,” Homes confesses. But what a place that must be.