Shock­ing op­ti­mist hits a nerve

Wit­ness­ing the 9/11 at­tacks turned AM Homes, known for her sub­ur­ban gothic nov­els, into a more re­demp­tive writer, as she tells Rose­mary Neill

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books -

IN Septem­ber 2001, AM Homes was at home in New York’s Greenwich Vil­lage when a friend phoned to tell her a plane had hit the World Trade Cen­tre. Homes’s apart­ment had a clear view of the twin tow­ers and the nov­el­ist as­sumed a small plane must have ac­ci­den­tally struck one.

‘‘ Then I looked out the win­dow and as the sec­ond plane came in I saw it hit,’’ she says. ‘‘ It was the first time in my life that I had seen some­thing far more ter­ri­fy­ing than what I could do in my imag­i­na­tion.’’

Homes, 51, is one of the most tal­ented, po­lar­is­ing and brazenly orig­i­nal writ­ers of her gen­er­a­tion, and she says the 9/11 at­tacks changed the tenor of her fic­tion. In a tele­phone in­ter­view with Re­view, she re­calls how wit­ness­ing the worst ter­ror­ist at­tack on Amer­i­can soil ‘‘ was the first time re­al­ity be­came, really, an un­safe place to be. It made me think about a lot of things.’’

It also pro­voked her into writ­ing ‘‘ op­ti­misti­cally at a time that’s not op­ti­mistic; try­ing to think about our re­spon­si­bil­i­ties to one an­other’’.

The au­thor, known for her sub­ur­ban gothic tales of crack-smok­ing com­muters and pe­dophiles who be­come pen­pals, has crafted more re­demp­tive works in re­cent years. Take her lat­est novel, May We Be For­given. Pop­u­lated with characters who are at once ex­trav­a­gantly flawed and plau­si­bly hu­man, the story cen­tres on a mid­dle-aged man who dis­cov­ers his hu­man­ity late in life as he helps re­solve a fam­ily tragedy he partly brings about.

Harry is a his­tory pro­fes­sor, a Nixon spe­cial­ist, with an in­dif­fer­ent mar­riage and an ob­nox­ious brother who is taller, richer and more suc­cess­ful than he is. When the brother, Ge­orge, a tele­vi­sion ex­ec­u­tive, causes a car ac­ci­dent that kills two peo­ple, he goes mad and is hos­pi­talised.

Harry com­forts Ge­orge’s wife and the two end up in bed to­gether. Ge­orge, who has a filthy tem­per, stum­bles in on them and kills his wife with a bed­side lamp.

Harry finds him­self bring­ing up his brother’s griev­ing kids and reach­ing out to a third griev­ing child. At first blush, this sounds like a made-for-Hol­ly­wood trans­for­ma­tion. How­ever, in her ex­ca­va­tion of con­tem­po­rary so­cial mores, Homes im­bues even the most tragic or poignant events with a sense of the ab­surd — from the dumb things well-mean­ing adults say to the be­reaved chil­dren at their mother’s wake, to the child­less Harry com­fort­ing a men­stru­at­ing 11-year-old who has in­serted a tam­pon in the wrong ‘‘ hole’’.

It’s a lit­er­ary high­wire act, and Homes — who had planned to tour Aus­tralia next month but pulled out for health rea­sons — says she uses com­edy ‘‘ quite in­ten­tion­ally, to go deeper emo­tion­ally into th­ese lives. I think that when you are funny you can ac­tu­ally say more some­times than when you are be­ing se­ri­ous.’’ This novel, her sixth, has many high­pro­file ad­mir­ers, in­clud­ing Sal­man Rushdie, who said of it: ‘‘ I can’t re­mem­ber when I last read a novel of such nar­ra­tive in­ten­sity . . . [it is] an un­flinch­ing ac­count of a cat­a­strophic, vi­o­lent, black-comic, trans­for­ma­tive year in the his­tory of one bro­ken Amer­i­can fam­ily. Flat-out amaz­ing.’’

In con­trast, the lit­er­ary world was sharply

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