Forgiving the killers?

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Is it still considered bad form to talk politics during a social gathering?

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Well-off college students often feel a desire to prove themselves by spending time in Third World countries. Most of them do an internship or volunteer abroad for the summer, retreating back to an upper-middle-class lifestyle after graduation.

Not Nadine Morgan, the protagonist of Amanda Eyre Ward’s “Forgive Me,” though. In the novel’s first chapter, the 35-year-old journalist turns onto an unpaved Mexican road. A drug gang tears her from her car and beats her mercilessly.

She wakes up back in Massachusetts, in her father’s home — she’s never been close to him — and has a quick fling with her doctor, who shows her an article from a high school newspaper.

The story profiles the parents of Jason Irving, a young, local man who’d taught English in South Africa in the years before apartheid ended. He opposed apartheid, but a gang of black children randomly bludgeoned him to death.

A character explains, “Do you think the police asked Stephen Biko what he believed before they murdered him in jail? Did anyone ask me my opinions before they told me I could not go to college?”

And, “I am sorry for the boy and his family, but we must fight for freedom, whatever it takes. If killing white people leads to freedom, it is worth it.”

It’s now the mid-Nineties, and South Africa is conducting its post-apartheid Truth and Reconciliation Commission hearings. At the hearings, those who engaged in political violence can apply for amnesty. Irving’s killers could walk free.

His parents are flying to South Africa to testify; the boy’s father is willing to forgive the murderers, but the mother remains bitter.

Nadine enjoys the doctor’s company but ignores his warning to recover from her injuries before returning to work. She also ignores his obvious desire to carry on a serious relationship with her. She books a flight to South Africa and ends up on the same plane as the Irvings.

Jason’s mother is hostile to Nadine’s questions (“I’ll be clear: leave us alone”). Jason’s father, however, gives Nadine a copy of Jason’s journal. Through the book readers find excerpts of “Nantucket to Stardom.”

When the doctor finds out Nadine has skipped town, he remarks, “I had no idea how much that article would inspire you.”

Did he think she’d stay on Cape Cod for the rest of her life?

“For the rest of the week, maybe.”

But it turns out Nadine has a history in South Africa herself — she covered stories there for awhile after graduating journalism school, and she even knew the sister of one of Irving’s killers.

As Nadine digs deeper into the Irving saga, and as Ms. Ward clues readers in to Nadine’s past, it rapidly becomes clear that this is one complicated woman.

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