Although it shouldn't be, forgiveness is an imperfect value. It requires itchy self-examination in both giving and receiving, and it needs perpetual re-examination to stay affirmed.
So it is for Robin, the cranky 50-year-old widow and estranged mother in West Coast author Peggy Herring's first novel, This Innocent Corner.
Set in the months before the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, the novel follows Robin as she returns to Dhaka, where she had spent a year in the early 1970s, living with a family as an exchange student. That was a tumultuous year for Bangladesh, as it strove to break away from its bonds as East Pakistan.
Inside the Chowdhury home where Robin was staying, tensions were also high. The daughter Luna, the same age as the opinionated American student, was carrying on a forbidden romance with a refugee Bihari boy. Although she doesn't find out about it until she returns to Bangladesh in 2001, Robin's abetting of the 1970 romance led to a double tragedy.
The second half of the book is set in Canada as Robin examines her hard-headed values and rebuilds her house, which collapsed during her revisit to Bangladesh.
If this sounds confusing, it is, but Herring's clear prose, albeit presented in a clunkily structured novel, warrants reading.
Herring has lived and travelled extensively in Southeast Asia, and nicely renders both the scents and the tensions swirling in the Chowdhury family home. Heated arguments, political and cultural, take place over equally heated plates of food. The presumptuous American can't help but enlighten her backward hosts as she provokes debate by asking how Biharis might be included in a new Bangladesh construct:
"Is it wrong to ask questions? Or does asking questions make me a so-called vested interest?"
"No, no," Amma said soothingly. "Everything is perfectly all right."
Luna rolled her eyes.
"I respect the frank ways of your people," Mr. Chowdhury said, following Amma's lead. "A healthy state can weather the trials of dissent, isn't it?"
"Then tell me this. Say someone wanted to go for full independence. Not autonomy, as stated in the plan. Couldn't they also be considered an agent of vested interests lying in ambush?" I looked directly at Hasan so there could be no misunderstanding my meaning.
Bull's eye. His chair clattered to the floor as he threw himself to his feet.
"You are a stupid American girl," he shouted. "Go home before you shame your people further."
Since half the book takes place in a land that could provide a wealth of superlatives, Herring's outdoor scenes are surprisingly spare: The street was filled with afternoon traffic. More rickshaws. Pedestrians. A horse-pulled tonga. Another editor might have prescribed more extensive exposition.
Another editor might have also suggested Herring use a different structure, rather than cleaving the two stories, telling instead the back story through succeeding flashbacks as Robin, now Canadian and a draft dodger's widow, repairs her stone house, tentatively discovers new love and works toward a reconciliation with her own hard-headed daughter. The inconsistency of Luna speaking in almost pidgin English while the rest of the family speaks fluently could also have been pointed out.
These imperfections can be forgiven, though, more easily than the main character forgives herself, though she does. She eventually leaves us with the hopeful knowledge that some tensions can be eased, yet must always be respected - there is no telling when they might erupt again and require further consideration.
Vivian Moreau is a Victoria writer.