Saturday 18 November 2017

Family values: a deliciously readable tale of personal destruction – and the path to forgiveness

When New York lawyer Ben Armstead flames out in a spectacular mid-life crisis, it's left to his wife, Helen, to pick up the pieces and provide a home for their adopted daughter, Sara. Moving to Manhattan, Helen takes a job in public relations and discovers to her surprise that she has a talent for crisis management.

That talent is encapsulated in the title of Jonathan Dee's sixth novel, A Thousand Pardons (his previous offering, The Privileges, was a finalist in the 2011 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction). Confronted with a corrupt politician or wandering husband with a tarnished public image, Helen's advice is entirely pragmatic: apologise sincerely and beg forgiveness.

That homespun philosophy, in which a woman succeeds by deploying her domestic skills in the professional domain, suggests that Dee is writing a satire on the patriarchal nature of industry. That Helen is less successful as she further ascends the career ladder and engages with a corporate mentality and the Catholic Church appears to confirm this, although Helen's greatest challenge occurs when she is presented with a moral conundrum in which she finds herself personally involved in a crisis involving a childhood friend, the Hollywood actor Hamilton Barth.

Meanwhile, a penitential Ben, finally stripped of all his worldly possessions and self-delusions, moves back into the family home and begins the painful process of proving his worth to the daughter he has largely ignored.

Dee has crafted an intimate family epic, a literary novel of Big Ideas that is rooted in all the important small words: love, loss, faith, trust. It's a character-driven story in which all of the main players are flawed but fascinating, all-too-human creations who are vaguely aware of their own failings, but lack the will or fortitude required to become the people they know they should be.

Dee's trick, the trick of all the great storytellers, is to persuade us that we desperately want these people to better themselves, to achieve in their own lives the happy endings Helen contrives so efficiently for her clients. "You will get up in front of the cameras and make an offering of yourself," Helen tells the errant politician, and that quasi-religious note, that demand for genuine self-sacrifice, is the key to this novel's success.

Forgiveness runs like a seam through A Thousand Pardons, both the asking and the giving, to the point where we realise that it is a crucial element in any successful society. In this deliciously readable account of the destruction and rehabilitation of an otherwise unremarkable family, Jonathan Dee sounds a call to arms on behalf of public sincerity. It's a naive proposal, perhaps, but a wholly captivating one.

Declan Burke

Irish Independent

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