Over the last few weeks I have heard an awful lot of chatter and controversy about one particular book – South of Forgiveness. Billing itself as an “unprecedented collaboration between a survivor and a perpetrator”, South of Forgiveness details the communication and collaboration of Thordis Elva, an Icelandic writer and the man who raped her 20 years ago when she was aged just 16, Tom Stranger. There, you see, is the controversy; Elva offers a voice to a perpetrator, something that seems risky, pointless and simultaneously insulting to survivors of rape (Elvis dislikes the term ‘victim’) but South of Forgiveness manages to deal with the brutal accuracies of their specific story, as well as discuss on a broader scale the issues of rape and sexual violence across the world today.
Whilst I was reading South of Forgiveness I found myself gasping at certain statistics and sentences within the first few chapters. The prevalence of rape in the world today is alarming, terrifying and frankly enough to make anyone angry. Elva discusses this with a matter of fact tone in her chapters of the book, her disgust and contempt at perpetrators evident but never wholly overt. It is her ability to convey emotions like this that appears to allow her communication with Stranger to have flourished over the last ten years, since she first reached out to him, almost a decade after he aggressively, mindlessly raped her for two hours after a Christmas Party during his time as an exchange student in Iceland. Elva’s new boyfriend, and a man she had willingly lost her virginity to just nights before then, abused and assaulted her. Among the many alarming statements within the book, one that stood out is that even if Elva had wanted to send Stranger to jail it would have been almost impossible to do so due to Icelandic law at the time of the incident.
South of Forgiveness follows Elva and Stranger as they meet again, this time in Cape Town, a mid distance between their two homes in Australia and Iceland. After years of communicating via email, they decide to finally bite the bullet and meet in person with the aim to finding a level of reconciliation not possible in the written word. Their honesty, hurt and humility are clear throughout both Elva and Stranger’s chapters in the book. Yes, when I first read Stranger’s emails to Elva, and his chapters in the book I felt my skin crawl ever so slightly – I disliked that I was even allowing this man the time of day in my brain. However, as the book went on I became used to his segments, though never fully comfortable with them. I did not always agree with Elva and Stranger’s remarks or actions during their trip to South Africa, but I did constantly feel that what I was reading was somehow important. It demanded to be read, digested and understood by everyone, man or woman, young or old, because it is a subject we still hold as so taboo despite 1 in 3 women worldwide experiencing sexual assault, and in the UK 85,000 women and 12,000 men being raped every year (Source: RapeCrisis).
If you can, read South of Forgiveness. It will teach you more about human compassion than anything else and is a really remarkable and very readable book. Elva is a very skilled and fluid writer, her prose fast moving and full of information and detail.