South of Forgiveness by Thordis Elva and Tom Stranger: Review

Title: South of Forgiveness

Author: Thordis Elva, Tom Stranger

Publisher: Scribe Publications

Pages: 305; Price: Rs 814

“I know who it was who raped me sixteen years ago. What I need to know is who I’m trying to forgive for it…”

If two sentences could ever stir me to my core, it would have to be those. I remember it vividly – I went numb as I read these lines and had to put the book away for a long time. My mind, my heart and most importantly, my being needed time to process the enormity of what was being portrayed here.

South of Forgiveness is a real recollection of Thordis Elva meeting Tom Stranger in Cape Town, after he raped her as a sixteen-year old while on exchange from Australia in her hometown of Reykjavik in Iceland. For eight years before they meet, they exchange numerous emails hashing out feelings and emotions before they decide it’s time to meet face to face. They pick South Africa to be their meeting ground, a land that is as familiar with violence as it is with forgiveness – it’s the perfect setting to defeat hatred and find peace, for both.

This book has taken me close to six months to read, because what it carries between its pages is hurt, pain, betrayal and anguish that have spanned nearly two decades and two continents. It’s not something you can read in a breezy manner, without giving it time to sink and simmer a while, without letting the lessons of life that are revealed to find their feet and take a root in your heart.

Powerful moments are plentiful in the eight-day interaction that Thordis and Tom embark on. They talk about how they both have repeatedly revisited the night of the rape, “We can’t erase what happened, of course. But we can find ways to gain control of our time travels, becoming willing travellers who go on short trips to the past to make a conclusion or a discovery, instead of being involuntary victims who are dragged back there kicking and screaming every time something in our environment triggers a painful memory.” Hidden in the harsh reality of this gruesome experience, lies the faith that Thordis and Tom give us – that confronting the hardest parts of your life, addressing them head-on instead of fearing them, can lead to healing of heart and soul.

The central theme of course, is the theme of forgiveness, which Thordis explains in a conversation with Tom, “Sometimes the pivotal factor is not the proximity to the defender; it’s the gravity of the hurt. If it cuts deep enough, life can slowly become unbearable despite the offender being miles away, or dead. Which, in turn, can make forgiveness seem like the only way out.” Though it may be a hard drink to swallow, it serves as a good reminder that forgiving someone is, more often than not for ourselves. This is reaffirmed by a former prisoner at the Robben Island, the prison where many were wrongfully imprisoned. Thordis asks him, “Is it possible to forgive what they did to you.” And he responds quite simply, “We’ve forgiven all of it. It’s the only way forward.”

As much as the book leads us through Thordis’ journey, what was profoundly impactful was the manner, in which Tom, the perpetrator of the rape finds his life affected. He spends most of his adult life trying to understand what possessed him to commit this heinous crime – it’s a unique perspective that I don’t think we would have been delved into, had this story not been published. Tom struggles with perpetrators guilt and cannot forgive himself till the very end of the trip. On the day before they leave the city, standing on the beach, Thordis hugs him and says, “It’s over. I forgive you. It’s over.” And finally, Tom is able to let go of his shame as he says. “I accept your forgiveness.” 

I can’t say I was sure of what to expect when I picked up this title. It would be fair to say I was expecting some combination of rage, anger and hate pouring forth from the pages. Instead, what I found was composed acceptance, brutally honest conversations and open-hearted forgiveness, which illuminate the depth of compassion human beings are capable of even in the most traumatic of situations. I’ve been awed, moved and humbled through every page of this poignant book. Thordis and Tom, thank you for your courage.

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