Forgiveness


This story is another review of a book which doesn't exist. Lem wrote in the preface to one of his collections of factitious reviews that writing the review saved him the trouble of writing the book. Certainly I have plenty of ideas for stories that would take much longer to write than an outline disguised as a review - and many that I wouldn't have sufficient inclination to write anyway.

This is one book that I wouldn't want to write, wouldn't want to read, and would probably never see reviews of. But unlike some works I "review", it is a possible book. Someone could have written it.


"Forgiveness" by Deborah Stott is published next week.
Here it is reviewed by Jordan Travers


This is Deborah Stott's third published novel. It has been called an amorality tale, a thought experiment, and a parable about scapegoating. It has also been called "a truly vile work by a clearly deranged mind", by church leaders who see it as an attack on religion.

Her now-familiar themes are all here - a constantly shifting cast around a mysterious central character, sparse dialogue and detached 3rd person description - but there is also something new, namely paring down of descriptive detail, leaving a sense that the places and the peripheral events are formless or ambiguous, as though seen in a dream.

The protagonist, such as there is, is Angelica, a girl who has led an unremarkable childhood until her fifteenth birthday, when she abruptly suffers a stroke which destroys her memory.

She can recall her life before the stroke, and form new memories, but after a hour or two they fade away. She is effectively trapped in the day of her fifteenth birthday, dimly aware that something is wrong, but unable to formulate an answer or even hold on to the question.

However, this is all we really learn about Angelica. The focus is on the actions of those around her - not on their emotions, because Stott rarely tells us what her characters are feeling directly, letting us piece together their conflicted reactions and motivations from their mercurial and contradictory behavior.

The father, a disappointed office-worker named Joshua, has been wrestling with worsening financial troubles for years, sinking cash he doesn't have into investments that turn bad, borrowing and defaulting, gambling and losing. The mother is Maria, a super-efficient housewife who realised a decade late that she threw away a promising career as an actress to marry the wrong man. There's no doubt they once loved each other, and in quiet moments still do, but it is clear both would rather be elsewhere.

Slowly, imperceptibly, Joshua has been taking out his frustrations more and more on his wife. he starts by ignoring her wishes, then picking arguments about trivial matters, and blaming her for his situation. After Angelica's stroke he starts beating Maria - having to get thoroughly each time drunk first, and being wracked with guilt afterwards.

Then something strange happens. The father stops mistreating the wife, and starts beating the daughter. The transfer is not sudden and takes several pages, but by the end Joshua and Maria are back in love, in good jobs and getting healthier bank balances.

And Angelica is examining herself in the bathroom mirror, puzzled by bruises she can't explain. Does Maria know what's happening? It is difficult to believe she couldn't notice, but she gives no indication. Does she choose not to see, does she not care, or does she consider it a price worth paying? We are not told.

Eventually of course, someone does notice. A doctor calls in the social services and Angelica is taken away to a care home. The parents don't resist too much and a year later we learn they're on their second honeymoon.

Angelica is puzzled by the change of location, but accepts it in her usual docile manner. She is well cared for by professionals and volunteers, and forms friendships - literally renewed on each meeting - with other abused youngsters.

One of these is Ruth, a compulsive liar and manipulator who is shunned by her peers and ignored by her carers. Ruth's neverending stream of stories about her suffering, her abuse, her illness and ill fortune are treated with good natured contempt by all who have heard dozens before.

But of course, Angelica doesn't remember. Each story is new and unquestioned, and the two can talk and cry and commiserate for the first time each day.

It is possible that some of Ruth's stories are true - she is after all in a home for victims of the kind of abuse she describes - but once again Deborah Stott refuses to give us any clues. She carefully avoids any suggestion of the omniscient author, though equally avoids implying that she may be an unreliable narrator.

Angelica may be the ideal companion for Ruth, and certainly Ruth's fantasies (and self delusions?) become less extreme over time, suggesting that she is finding some measure of happiness, but it can't last.

Angelica is transferred to another home, which she accepts in the same confused by docile way. By now she is nineteen, an attractive but vulnerable young woman. Inevitably, some residents show her kindness, some take advantage of her weakness, and most find themselves vacillating between the two. Even those with the best intentions find it all too easy to take advantage, even pretending to themselves they're doing her a favour.

The story focuses on Poul, a 23 year old "writer" (the kind with permanent writer's block) who has been drifting between care homes for most of his life. The reader knows he will rape Angelica long before he does it. The signs are there from the moment we meet him, and it follows the pattern of Angelina's life.

Poul is not depicted as an evil man, just a lonely one. But the way he holds Angelica down and leaves her sobbing in fear and confusion, and the way he does it again the next two nights - each the first for her - is not pleasant to read.

Then, on the third night, hours after Poul and her memory have gone, Angelica gets up, somehow breaks out of the home, and walks into the path of a car. She is killed instantly, and the driver, who was planning to kill himself by driving over a cliff, reconsiders.

And that's it. The book ends abruptly, almost in mid-paragraph. Previous works included an epilogue, but here there is pointedly nothing.

It is easy to see why this book, more than any of Stott's previous output, has caused such controversy. The church sees is as crass sensationalism - an excuse to parade depravity and suffering without even the excuse of the evildoers coming to a bad end. Others view this same lack of moralising tone and the refusal to turn Angelica's story into a simpleminded morality play as brave and intelligent.

Most of the press has, as usual, decided to adopt a middle ground, unable to say anything definite at all, reviewers even refusing to say whether they enjoyed the book or not. Most focus on the obvious symbolism of names. Joshua is the biblical Jesus and Maria is Mary - ah, but which one? Ruth is the biblical author so many believers forget, and Poul is Paul, the one they can't forget. Angelica is obviously an angel, though presumably not a specific one among the choir.

Though Stott follows the short life of her "heroine", the title "Forgiveness" give us a clue that it isn't really about her at all. Angelica is indeed an angel. Not an avenging angel, nor a guardian angel. She simply radiates joy and redemption wherever she walks, infusing those who she meets with strength and purpose.

And what is the source of this life energy? Obviously it is Angelica herself - she suffers so that others may have joy, she is shackled so that others may find freedom, and ultimately she dies so that others may live.

She gives unstintingly until she has no more to give. She asks nothing in return, nor any recognition that she has given. She has no memory, and therefore gives perfect forgiveness. After she lets each of us take whatever we need from her, she lets us off the hook with her forgiveness, and where there is forgiveness, so the reasoning goes, there is no crime.

The message is simple: This is what it is to be a saint, an angel, a benefactor of mankind. We take from those among us who have to goodness to allow it, we go on taking until there's nothing left, and then we move on to the next one, dignifying what we've done pretending it wasn't really us taking at all - we merely received what was freely flowing.

Deborah Stott has refused to be drawn on the meaning of her novel, saying it is up to the reader to extract a moral message from it, and accept or reject it according to their own conscience. Not surprisingly, her detractors find this unsatisfactory.

Speaking personally, I can't tell you whether I'm persuaded by Stott's image of the angel as victim. A week after finishing it I'm still confused - as I suspect was the intention. But I can tell you: You should read it for yourself, and decided, or not, for yourself.

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