- The Washington Times - Sunday, August 5, 2007

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.

She’s driven to cover violence, but it’s not clear whether her love for adrenaline or her commitment to justice truly explains why. She’s wildly promiscuous, as fearful of commitment as she is fearless of extreme physical danger. She’s always running, but one wonders if she heads toward stories or away from normalcy.

She looks upon her childhood, and upon a close friend who settled down to raise a family, with disdain. Frighteningly, soon after arriving in South Africa, she requests a pregnancy test from the hotel’s help desk.

But psychoanalysis aside, “Forgive Me” is above all a dark story, heavily speckled with (though not drowning in) blood. Normal life waits in the States, but Nadine can’t stay out of the world’s hotspots. The South Africans Nadine encounters all have their own disturbing tales of the apartheid years. In fact, a boyfriend of Nadine’s fell victim to the struggles.

And dark does not translate to exaggerated or untrue. The story of Jason Irving is based on that of Amy Biehl, a Stanford University student and Fulbright scholar. She worked against apartheid in South Africa. In 1993, a mob of blacks took her from her car and stoned her to death.

(For the record, her family and friends took the forgiveness route. Her parents supported her killers’ amnesty, and her father shook their hands. Today, the Amy Biehl Foundation Trust works out of Cape Town.)

The book has little use as outright history, though. Ms. Ward includes only the facts absolutely necessary to the plot — she doesn’t instruct on the country’s developments, though her historical references will remind a reader of whatever knowledge he already has.

It’s the twists at the end that make this book so worthwhile. One involves “Nantucket to Stardom,” the second Jason Irving’s dying experiences.

The latter revelation seems ridiculously unlikely, badly contrived and even cheesy at first. But read the paragraphs carefully, and re-read chapters two and 12 if necessary: Things are not as they seem, and that almost qualifies as a third twist in itself. A whole sequel could detail whatever fallout this complicated maneuver has.

Is this the best book you’ll read this year? Certainly not. Ms. Ward’s writing lacks deftness, suffering from clumsy sentences and awkward dialogue.

But the tale’s positives quickly overshadow the prose’s negatives. Ms. Ward tells a terrific, multilayered story with an unforgettable protagonist, setting up nuanced twists readers don’t see coming. It touches on justice, government repression, coming of age (at 35) and the importance of family.

Were Nadine writing the book, she would want the theme to be: “If you don’t forgive, you’re just stuck. You just keep reliving the same moment. You can’t be free.” She does what she can to help the Irvings live that ideology.

The upshot ultimately proves cynical, but that only adds to the novel’s fascinating intricacy.


By Amanda Eyre Ward

Random House, $23.95, 256 pages

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