A Thousand Pardons, by Jonathan Dee, Corsair, RRP£7.99/Random House, RRP$15, 288 pages

Sometimes sorry really isn’t the hardest word to say. Meaning it, on the other hand, is the tricky bit. We are only too accustomed to the rite of the public apology: that squirming, self-abasing plea for society’s forgiveness. But are we convinced? In A Thousand Pardons, Jonathan Dee grapples with public relations, private contrition and the importance of knowing the difference between the two.

The novel begins with the end of a marriage: the disintegrating union of suburban couple Ben and Helen, whose “date night” turns out to be a weekly trip to a therapist. Shortly afterwards, Ben destroys his family and career in one explosive moment and Helen relocates with their teenage daughter, Sara, to New York. Forced to get a job, Helen discovers that she has a talent for making powerful men apologise for their mistakes, something that Ben’s lawyer has prohibited him from doing. “People are quick to judge …they are quick to condemn, but that’s mostly because their ultimate desire is to forgive,” she persuades one client, who subsequently falls on his sword and turns his business around.

Dee, whose 2010 novel The Privileges was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize, creates a deftly sketched world that is at times all too recognisable. For the therapist, “silence might belong to anyone but vapid professional jargon was something that could bear her own distinctive stamp”. A nosy local mother “might have been cheerfully handing out rocks with which to stone Helen”.

While Helen’s reputation as “the sorry maven” propels her up the ranks of the public relations ladder, Ben embarks on his own journey towards real remorse. Caught in the middle is Sara, a sharply-drawn picture of adolescence, whose every harsh word towards her unfortunate mother captures her own sense of alienation. “She had a strong and pleasing sense of being dormant, like a one-girl sleeper cell, until she got the lay of the land.”

The novel wrestles with how we and others come to terms with our own identities and mistakes, both in public and private. Ben forces himself to atone for events, moving back into the former marital home: “I have to live here because it reminds me every day of who I am”.

Dee’s meditation on repentance in a post-divorce world works well but the novel starts to falter when a late-breaking psychological thriller plot disrupts its flow. For all its keen insight and fast-paced writing, the book is ultimately weakened by its own identity crisis. And given its potential, that is something for the reader to feel sorry about.

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