To exact revenge or not? That is the question

When his wife is murdered, an American expat faces tough questions on mercy and justice.

Toby Keith fans probably needn't bother with Ward Just's new novel Forgetfulness. There's not a whole lot of flag-waving or whooping it up "Courtesy of the Red, White, and Blue."

In fact, Thomas Railles, American portrait painter, hasn't been home in more than a decade and can't think of a reason to return to the United States.

"It's a spoiled, peevish country. Whines a lot. Mad at everybody," comments his friend Bernhard, a US intelligence agent who's had Thomas do certain "odd jobs" for his country over the years.

It appears that one of those favors may have had hideous repercussions. Thomas's French wife, Florette, was hiking in the Pyrenees near their home when she hurt her leg. Four Middle Eastern men come upon her. At first, they seem to be rescuing her. Then they cut her throat.

A few months later, four suspects are arrested, and Thomas is invited to sit in on the interrogation. While he's revolted at the "protocols" involved, Thomas becomes fascinated by the rituals. "Thomas thought the proceedings as stylized as a Noh play and as hypnotizing."

As it turns out, the drama comparison is an apt one: Antoine, the lead interrogator, has acted with the Comédie-Française. He has a gift for farce, and specializes in Molière.

Eventually, Thomas asks to speak to the man who may be his wife's killer. While talking to him, he finds himself tempted to exact retribution on the shackled man. Whether Thomas decides to take revenge is the central moral question of "Forgetfulness," and ultimately it is more interesting to the author than the question of whether Florette was a casualty of international espionage or simply an unfortunate victim in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Just, whose 2003 novel "An Unfinished Season" was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize, does some wonderful writing during Thomas's afternoon wrestling with questions of justice and mercy, and what debt is owed to the dead.

The title recurs throughout the novel. "Forgetfulness is an old man's friend. Forgetfulness is a dream state...." Thomas tells visitors before the murder.

Later on he muses, "Amnesia was the curse of the modern world, or its redemption, depending on whether you held to the Old Testament or the New. Forgiveness was the consequence of amnesia."

Antoine, the interrogator, also maintains that a vigilant memory is vital in his line of work. Forgetting would lead to a lack of zeal, of focus.

While it raises profound questions about the purpose of revenge, "Forgetfulness" would have made a better novella. Both before and after Thomas's crisis of conscience, the novel sags under too many digressions.

For example, right after Florette's murder, Thomas spends pages reminiscing – not about his wife – but about an elderly British neighbor who recently died. For a reader, this feels like a case of incredibly poor timing.

Then the neighbor's sole surviving relative, a middle-aged American, shows up and rips into Thomas for his expatriate life.

"I have never understood people who choose to live outside their own country," lectures Victoria Granger, whose gray hair and stocky build make her look like she's made of "concrete." "That kind of decision always seemed disloyal to me, abandoning your family and becoming a voluntary orphan. Something scummy about it."

(I should add that Victoria is well aware that Thomas's wife has been murdered before she launches into her "My country, right or wrong" diatribe. I know our culture is frequently accused of a lack of civility, but Just stretches things beyond the realm of the plausible here.)

In case we haven't gotten the "ugly American" bit, Thomas also ruminates about a belligerent American tourist who created a scene in the local cafe the day Thomas proposed to Florette. Blinded and scarred by the Sept. 11 attacks, the man embodies fury and self-pity looking for a target.

After the interrogation, Thomas finds himself returning home to his native country. The rest of the novel is a drawn-out denouement: well written, thoughtful, but without the moral urgency that fired the heart of the book.

Yvonne Zipp regularly reviews fiction for the Monitor.

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