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28 of 30 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Complex and at times challenging - but very rewarding
If Patrick Flanery's South African set debut novel "Absolution" is anything to go by, he could well be one of the next big names in literary fiction. It's complex and at times challenging, but ultimately an extremely rewarding reading experience.

The narrative is braided and follows several characters through four repeating chapter headings. Finding your way...
Published on 28 Feb 2012 by Ripple

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27 of 31 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Less here than meets the eye
I'm afraid I didn't get on as well with this book as some other reviewers did. It has all the hallmarks of a book which expects to be considered for literary prizes - elegant prose, themes and setting chosen for their Great Importance, multiple narrative voices and fractured timescale, and so on - but I found it a long slog and in the end I wasn't convinced that it is as...
Published on 8 April 2012 by Sid Nuncius


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28 of 30 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Complex and at times challenging - but very rewarding, 28 Feb 2012
By 
Ripple (uk) - See all my reviews
(TOP 100 REVIEWER)   
This review is from: Absolution (Hardcover)
If Patrick Flanery's South African set debut novel "Absolution" is anything to go by, he could well be one of the next big names in literary fiction. It's complex and at times challenging, but ultimately an extremely rewarding reading experience.

The narrative is braided and follows several characters through four repeating chapter headings. Finding your way about what is going on here is initially somewhat confusing, and how they interplay together is part of the joy of the book not something I want to reveal too much about to a potential reader. It starts with Sam, an academic who is returning to his native South Africa from the US to write a reluctantly authorised biography of Clare Wald, a difficult elderly writer. Secondly, there's a third-person narrative that starts with the aftermath of a house invasion at Clare's house. Thirdly, there is a first-person narrative set in the past about Clare's daughter Laura, who has since disappeared. The final thread is a flashback to Sam's own youth. We know from very early on that there is a shared past between Clare and Sam, of which Clare seems oblivious. It's that shared past that drives the novel. One of the threads is entitled "Absolution" which we learn fairly early on is Clare's own fictionalised, and soon to be published, memoir of events. But unlike with her initial contact with Sam, she is not deliberately obfuscating the truth - she simply doesn't know what happened. She's just trying to pull the threads together herself.

If that all sounds very confusing, then it is - at least at first. If you like your novels to start at the beginning and end at the end, then this isn't the book for you. But if you like the challenge of seeing how unreliable memories, imagined past and the truth interplay, then this is a terrific read.

On the surface, part of the message appears to be that for all the efforts of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, the issues in post apartheid South Africa remain difficult and no amount of raking over the past has healed intrinsic problems in the country. In particular the bits set in Johannesburg paint a continued picture of lawlessness and violence and strained relations between the races. But the book's strength is more in the deeper, more personal efforts to absolve individuals of the past rather than the acts of terror on both sides of the divide. Here there is no judge to listen to the sins of the past and to provide absolution to the victims or the perpetrators.

Don't expect any easy answers here. Clare is a difficult woman and has had her failings as a mother and, in her old age, it is these that dominate her thoughts. She knows she cannot change the past, but who can forgive her? There are also questions of which version of the truth, if any, is "real"? And Clare is not the only one with a past that she might wish to change here.

Flanery orchestrates these multiple points of view and temporal leaps with the skill of a far more experienced writer and leaves the reader confused for far longer than most debut novelists would dare. Neither does he get tempted to tie things up with a neat bow at the end and some may find this challenging approach limits their enjoyment of the book. Indeed a little more signposting of the structure would be welcome - I found myself going back and re-reading all the "Absolution" chapters once I knew what was going on with them, but now I've given that snippet away, you won't have to.

It feels authentic, original and is a satisfyingly challenging and captivating read. Highly recommended for fans of literary fiction, while fans of a more conventional story-telling may well find this irritatingly confusing.
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars absorbing literary debut, 13 July 2013
This review is from: Absolution (Paperback)
Mis-described by some reviews as a thriller, this is an intricate, ambitious, literary novel that takes a discomforting look at white guilt and fear and the impossibility of trust in post-apartheid South Africa. In slow reveal through five narratives, because of the fallibility of evidence and memory it delivers no final certainty or message.
The complex structure distanced me, as did the literary, analytical style, particularly in Clare Wald's dialogue. And one imagined scene about a Kafkaesque killing system seemed to have found its way into the wrong novel. Nevertheless, I found it absorbing and interesting, and the pages turned easily.
I'm intrigued that the author is an American. I'd be interested to see what he writes next.
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27 of 31 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Less here than meets the eye, 8 April 2012
By 
Sid Nuncius (London) - See all my reviews
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This review is from: Absolution (Hardcover)
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I'm afraid I didn't get on as well with this book as some other reviewers did. It has all the hallmarks of a book which expects to be considered for literary prizes - elegant prose, themes and setting chosen for their Great Importance, multiple narrative voices and fractured timescale, and so on - but I found it a long slog and in the end I wasn't convinced that it is as profound as it thinks it is.

The publisher's synopsis on this page gives a good account of the book's plot and themes, and there were certainly good things about it. It paints a vivid picture of immediately post-apartheid South Africa with the constant fear of violent crime and the difficulty of straightforward relationships between races even for people of good will. The elderly writer Clare's character in particular was believable and well drawn and there are some horrifyingly haunting scenes. But, oh dear, it did go on. Flanery explores the nature of guilt and redemption but, in spite of the importance of the setting and set-pieces like the long, stilted, quasi-legal discussion between Clare and her lawyer son toward the end of the book, I didn't find much in the way of new insight here.

Flanery is also playing with the idea of memory and its failings and distortions with differing versions of events so that we are constantly unsure of what is fiction, what is lies and what are imperfect memories. This can work well in a story but and I found that it wore very thin in the end and didn't really say much of importance. Then, close to the end of the book Clare says "Perhaps the literal truth is not what you have remembered, but the truth of memory is no less accurate in its way." This is nonsense dressed up as profundity. It may be no less important or influential, but no less *accurate*? If a doctor mis-remembers the proper dose of a drug, for example, and kills a patient as a result, the truth of the doctor's memory is less accurate than the literal truth, which Flanery side-steps so blithely, of what is the correct dose. It made me extremely grumpy after I had slogged through the best part of 400 pages because it suggested that I had spent a long time trying to make sense of nonsensical ideas about truth and memory.

I agree that this book will probably be a contender for some of the year's literary prizes, but I felt that it was written with more than half an eye on exactly that and not enough attention to what it was actually trying to say. I think that, while it does have some merit, there is a lot of style and setting here and not as much substance as there should be.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A valuable glimpse into a complex country, 31 May 2013
This review is from: Absolution (Paperback)
I was surprised when I noticed that the author is an American living in London rather than South African. I found his portrait of today's South Africa convincing and am willing to believe that his imaginative research is good and that he must have meaningful contacts with the country. The story moves through a variety of landscapes and, although it was a minor part, I found myself particularly enjoying the central character's attempts to work in harmony with different gardeners in her large expensive houses and balance her own aesthetic preferences with the gardeners' rights to work the soil as they chose and nurture the indigenous rather than the imported plants. Extracted like that it sounds overly-programmatic (and one of the gardeners is called Adam). In the context of the story it works well and offsets, in some small way, the over riding paranoia of the gated communities in which the white characters hide from the impoverished and violent. The main story of the book is an examination of past actions, of guilt and motive. Did the structure of the novel need to be so complex? Intellectually yes - emotionally, I wasn't quite so sure.
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12 of 14 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Wonderfully complex and beautifully written..., 20 Mar 2012
By 
FictionFan (Kirkintilloch, Scotland) - See all my reviews
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This review is from: Absolution (Hardcover)
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This wonderfully written book is so complex it's hard to give a full flavour of it in a short review. As Clare Wald, famous South African novelist, gives a series of interviews to her biographer, Sam Leroux, she begins a journey through her memories, re-assessing the part she has played in the lives of those around her. She is also writing an autobiographical fiction and we see all the different threads as we, like Clare, try to find the truth amidst the invention.

Clare's story, and Sam's, is told against the background of the role and position of the white South Africans during and after the struggle against apartheid. It is a search for truth that shows how memories are distorted and conflicting, how it is hard to distinguish whether motives are personal or political. The fear felt by the white community, whether real or exaggerated, pulses through the book allowing the author to examine questions of suspicion and trust.

As Clare and Sam search for their own redemption, the author has them echo the theme of the Truth and Reconciliation hearings designed to allow South Africa to face its past and look forward to its future. With the white South African regime having been one of the ogres of my youth, I was amazed and moved at the way the author made me feel both sympathy and empathy for the white people caught up in these events. But this book isn't just about South Africa - the emotions and motivations of these characters are universal.

This is a wonderful book, all the more remarkable since it is the author's first. Assured, beautifully written and shocking in parts, it has left me with images that will stay with me for a long time. Sorrowful, filled with guilt and cruelty but echoing with hope, much like South Africa itself - in my opinion, this will be in the running for best book of 2012. Highly recommended.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Ambitious - but not as complex and challenging as I expected, 30 April 2013
By 
Roman Clodia (London) - See all my reviews
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This review is from: Absolution (Kindle Edition)
This is an ambitious and multi-layered engagement with post-apartheid South Africa, and a complicated unravelling of where political motives might overlap with the personal. With big themes of memory, truth, reconciliation and forgiveness, this is a very intelligent book but - like some of the other reviewers here - I can't help feeling that some of the complexities of the narrative structure work to obscure the fact that, at heart, there's little new or original here.

Flanery writes well, and has created a great character in Clare Wald: ageing, cantankerous, touchy, consumed with a sense of self-guilt. While the country attempts to work through the guilt of its past in the activities of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, so Clare seeks her own redemption through her relationships with Sam, her writing and her children.

This isn't a polemic, and there's a nice light touch over some of the politics: Sam's visit to Robben Island, for example, makes only brief mentions of its `most famous prisoner' without bashing us over the head with the obvious points. There are also some horrific imaginings of the plight of political prisoners which haunt after the end of the book.

Yet, for all the good stuff, I ended this book feeling a little unsatisfied. The issue, especially, of the overlapping of political and personal motives, where the political might, in fact, be an ambiguous excuse for the personal, reminded me irretrievably of Graham Greene's The Quiet American set in Vietnam where a similar point is dramatized with, arguably, a tighter focus and far more impact.

I'm sorry if I sound overly negative and do want to stress that this is an ambitious, nuanced and intelligent read in lots of ways - it just wasn't the blow-away 5-star read that I had expected.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars brilliant First Novel, 22 April 2013
By 
Richard M. Seel (Norfolk UK) - See all my reviews
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This review is from: Absolution (Hardcover)
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Looking at the dictionary, 'Absolution' can mean formally setting free from guilt and the heart of this novel is the need for the mother to absolve herself from the way in which she treated her daughter and also, to a lesser extent, how she betrayed her sister and also to forgive herself.

So far so good but the story is much more complex than that and its twists and turns are a real page turner. Set in South Africa, the horrors that took place during Apartheid are clearly spelled out. The way in which white families had/felt the need to protect themselves and their property from attack, let alone the suspicions they had about both other white and black folk are quite explicit. The horrific way those who did not conform could be tortured in order to gain 'honest' admissions of guilt are, to those who live far away, quite unbelievable.

And all the time, Clare Wald, the mother, is a famous author who agrees to let Sam write her autobiography. Why did she agree and how honest is she with Sam is the question the reader is left with. Did she know from the beginning that Sam was in some way connected with her? Did Clare understand why her daughter Laura had to leave her? Was Laura really able to perform such actions to challenge the authorities? Many questions and no clear answers but as Flanery weaves his magic, the reader is drawn closer until they can almost believe they might be part of the story.

A brilliant novel from a new writer.

Review by Shirleyanne Seel.
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5 of 6 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Where reality and narrative meet, interweave, tangle and entwine, 1 April 2012
By 
This review is from: Absolution (Hardcover)
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Absolution is one of the best novels I've read in a while, continuing to haunt after finishing it. What is particularly remarkable is that this is the author's first novel. How did Flanery manage something this complex and assured, and written so sparely and without self-indulgence - the writing itself has clarity which reminds me of Damon Galgut, a writer FROM South Africa. Flanery, writing ABOUT South Africa, has a similar voice, but is American born and bred, now UK resident, bu he `feels' like a Southern Africa writer, in intensity, political engagement, and sense of space and isolation: Galgut, Paton, and most particularly `Rhodesian' born Doris Lessing.

Lessing is the writer this book most reminds me of, not just because the central character, Clare Wald, is a writer, writing a layered Lessing like book, Absolution, about the interface between personal and political history, but also because of certain structural similarities to Lessing's hugely groundbreaking 70's novel, Harper Perennial Modern Classics - The Golden Notebook, which contained many interweaving separate stories, written by the central character, so that the book was as much about writing, and the interface between reality, what is and what is not `objectively' real, and how we all interpret out-there reality to form a subjective reality.

Absolution's meta-story is a biography of the writer Wald, which is being written by a South African currently resident in America, Sam Leroux. Wald is mysterious, complex, layered, with a dark personal history, a political engagement against apartheid, which spans her parent's and her children's generations. She is writing a novel, Absolution, which may or may not be fiction, and includes, or may not include, autobiography. In order to write her book, she uses notebooks left by her mysteriously vanished politically activist daughter. The biographer Leroux also has his own troubled history with South Africa, and with Wald. So, like The Golden Notebook, we have several stories, and read each of them interwoven, Sam's voice, recounting his past, his present, his dark secrets, his connection with Wald, Clare Wald's account of her present, her past, and her secrets, the novel culled from some autobiographical events which may or may not have been used fictionally, Absolution, and various dated accounts which represent versions of reality and may have come from Wald's daughter's notebooks, but are also various representations of Sam's reality. Who is of course also a writer.

Lest this sound impossibly convoluted, Flanery's skill is to understand that the complex subject matter needs clear telling, to keep the reader able to let the various strands and versions of reality interweave and knot. In a sense, the point is not to try and work out which reality is real and which is the fiction of the writers, it is to accept that we all work and rework our personal history, our motivations for our actions, and the place we take in our own time and place, and how that intersects with the `objective reality' of the time and place we live in. `Truth' - the what happened, why did it happen is not linear, it is approached from perspectives.

A fabulous book, written by someone who does not appear to be in the process of becoming a wonderful writer, but has sprung into being fully formed
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4 of 5 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Truth and Reconciliation ?, 18 Mar 2012
By 
P. G. Harris - See all my reviews
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This review is from: Absolution (Hardcover)
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Is reconciliation possible when dispensed by the state, and where truth is a fractured and uncertain concept. Patrick Flanery suggests a negative answer in this bleak debut novel which provides a picture of South Africa still deeply conflicted and divided perhaps less by race and more by wealth and poverty (although there is a strong correlation). His is a South Africa where the forces of darkness from both sides of the apartheid era continue to commit violent crimes, but on an individual level rather than in organised fashion. This is a country where liberals stricken by guilt in the years of the Nationalist government are now stricken by guilt at their wealth forcing and enabling an excluded, secure lifestyle.

On a possibly more optimistic note Flanery suggests that reconciliation is possible on an individual level, although full disclosure is not necessarily his route to achieving it.

This is a genuinely excellent and intelligent first novel. It explores guilt at both a personal and societal level. It gives, an admittedly pessimistic, critique of the long term success of truth and reconciliation and analysis of current South African Society. It works as mystery thriller in which the truth is slowly revealed amidst frequent twists and turns of the plot.

There are four stands to the story, between which the connections are initially extremely hazy and unclear . Thus from a bright comfortable middle class start, the reader is suddenly disorientated by being dropped into the world of a terrorist/freedom fighter fleeing at night. At first the four strands seem to resonate and rattle against each other in a way reminiscent of Paul Auster, it is only as the book progresses that their interconnectedness truly becomes clear.

The four strands are a young writer, Sam's, account of working with an aging grand dame of literature, Clare Wald, on her biography, Clare's attempt to understand the fate of her daughter Laura, an activist and journalist who disappeared while opposing the Botha regime, a factual telling of Sam's life story, and excerpts from a fictional (?) autobiography being written by Clare. That proceedings of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission are weaved into Clare's telling of Laura's telling is only really illuminated when the plot gives a hard and unpleasant twist towards the end.

The heart of the novel is the relationship between its stars Sam and Clare. She is haughty, aloof, cold but inwardly tortured by her guilt at her failures as a parent and a sister and desperate for the Absolution of the title. He is rootless, ripped free from his native soil by a tragic childhood, looking for an understanding of the why of his past. Their interaction is spiced by the secrets each holds from the other. That they do eventually reach reconciliation is the small note of hope which Flanery provides.

I thoroughly recommend this novel. It is not always easy, it is certainly not warm and endearing, but the writing has a stark beauty, it is intelligent and thought provoking and it is deeply touching.
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3 of 4 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars What is Truth?, 4 Jun 2012
By 
Antenna (UK) - See all my reviews
(TOP 500 REVIEWER)   
This review is from: Absolution (Hardcover)
Set in post-apartheid South Africa, "Absolution" focuses on the celebrated but prickly novelist Clare Wald, who has permitted the little-known young Sam Leroux to interview her for a biography on the thin basis that "I've read your articles and don't think you're an imbecile".

Flanery succeeds in building up a sense of suspense and secrets to be revealed. Born to a liberal family, how did Clare manage to stay in South Africa and continue to write without falling foul of the authorities? For what sins does she crave absolution? She is clearly haunted both by the death of her sister Nora and the disappearance of her daughter Laura, for whose terrorist leanings she feels in some ways responsible. Does she recognise Sam, and what is his role in her past? What is Sam's ulterior motive in seeking her out? Why do these two find it hard to ask each other the questions which they need answered?

The story unfolds against a background of disappointing yet perhaps inevitable ongoing corruption and violence, with a vivid portrayal of the insecurity felt by whites in modern South Africa combined with a residual excessive privilege, the continual fear of robbery and elaborate security precautions which make them virtual prisoners in their luxurious homes.

The core of the book is an examination of the difficulty of knowing the truth about events, on both a personal and a political level, despite the work of the "Truth and Reconciliation Committee". This is due to people's differing perceptions of the same event, the gaps in memory caused by trauma, the desire to cover one's tracks, or to spare the feelings of others.

What other reviewers have seen as deep and impressive complexity appears to me to be unnecessary convolution. The use of four main parallel plot strands, combined with the device of describing the same event in different ways, makes for confusion at times. There is too much repetition of certain thoughts and memories, whilst details of some key events are left vague - perhaps this is intentional. Ironically, after leaving so much open to interpretation for so many pages, the end seems to spell out too prescriptively what the reader is supposed to think.

The important political and moral discussions between Clare and Sam often seem too wordy, earnest and stilted. I grew tired of Clare's endless tortured dreams and visitations from ghosts. Overall, there seems to be too much reporting or recalling of events, not enough acted out as scenes.

I agree with the reviewer who felt that this first novel has been written with literary awards in mind. The result is a little uneven with some striking, if studied, descriptions alternating with passages which seem slipshod and in need of further editing. I also agree that some of the philosophising about the nature of truth at the end is a little lame.

To conclude on a positive note, for an American to absorb and convey a sense of South Africa, the scenery, vegetation, lifestyle and atmosphere, seems quite an achievement.
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Absolution
Absolution by Patrick Flanery (Hardcover - 1 Mar 2012)
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