In 1996, Thordis Elva, an Icelandic teenager, was raped for two hours by Tom Stranger, her Australian boyfriend. Some years later they embarked on a journey of forgiveness, first by email and then by meeting up for a week in Cape Town. South of Forgiveness is a diary of the week the two spent together as they faced the offence and searched for forgiveness.

The most poignant moments are their visit to a rape crisis centre and to Robben Island, where their guide had been raped, as have one in five men in Cape Town, according to the authors (though rape statistics are not overly reliable). The authors themselves admit to some contextual incongruence in their personal search for forgiveness against such brutality of rape in apartheid and post-apartheid South Africa.

This is Elva’s story, so it is her voice we hear most, but Stranger became a victim of a different sort, his emotions held prisoner by guilt. All the aspects of rape are exposed here, from the father who won’t discuss the matter through to why Elva hadn’t reported it and the ongoing struggle with relationships. Elva was to be raped by other men on future occasions. She saw forgiveness as self-preservation and sought closure.

Stranger acknowledges the hurt he has caused. Their last day together ends with a hug and Elva whispers her forgiveness, and he accepts it. Stranger concludes that shame and guilt block memories, while with love and patience you can go back and uncover yourself. These are theological concepts but they are not dealt with this way at all, except at the very end. Stranger writes: “Such lofty attempts at spirituality feel a bit theatrical … but then again, if forgiveness was a religion, I’d be a follower. My soul feels free.” But forgiveness is a religion, and the process worked for these two people because of that.

We often hear about needing to forgive, but it is not often we get such an inside picture of the process, which makes the diary very brave. The narrative is not the most literary in style, but as a book to encourage public dialogue on a difficult and secretive subject it is perhaps in a class of its own.

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