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.
on 31 May 2013
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.
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.
on 13 July 2013
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.
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.
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.
This book is beautifully written, with scenes that will haunt you, but I can only echo the words of another reviewer - if you like your books with a clear narrative, and a beginning, middle and end, this one most definitely isn't for you. There are four repeating chapter headings, each giving a different view or perspective, but the central theme is that of Sam Leroux returning to South Africa to write a biography of ageing writer Clare Wald. If this is one thread, there are then three more - Clare's near present day narrative, the story of Laura (Clare's missing daughter) and Clare's fictionalised version of their shared common past. This book is a challenging read in its themes and structure - I invariably react adversely to paragraphs that last three pages - but once I had time to dedicate to it I found both narrative and its construction quite mesmerising. The wonder of this is that it's a first novel, and as such it's remarkably accomplished - undoubtedly a prize nominee in the coming year. Did I enjoy it? Yes, I did - the interplay of truth, fiction and memory is incredibly well done, and the portrait of white fear in modern South Africa during and after the overturning of apartheid will stick in the memory for some time.
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.
on 16 November 2014
What a joy it is to come across a wonderful new writer. I was engrossed in Absolution every time I picked it up, reading it daily through a working week or two, never with anything less than enormous enjoyment and admiration. Form and content complement one another perfectly, and the writing itself is superb. The story unfolds at a steady pace, never rushing but never letting up either. It alternates the first-person viewpoints of two main characters - veteran South African writer Clare and her young biographer Sam whose accounts are interleaved with chapters written in the third person. This structure, far more subtle and rewarding than a simple linear narrative, puts the reader inside the heads of Sam and Clare, generating an immensely real and compelling involvement between them and the reader which is further heightened by Flanery's refusal to resolve all of the contradictions in their accounts of their troubled histories. The setting is post-apartheid South Africa, the story concerned with how characters have been affected by country's violent and repressive history and how they live with its present dangers. The sense of what it is was and is like to live in this harsh and beautiful part of the world is vividly conveyed. The narrative retains its grip on the reader right to the end when, in the final pages, Clare and Sam each achieve some kind of victory over their ghosts. Finally, the tension you realise you have been carrying as a result of your involvement with the two of them is afforded some release, a moment of touching humanity that is profoundly moving. A stunning debut novel correctly characterised by AS Byatt on the cover: "A wonderfully constructed and gripping novel about betrayal and shadows in South Africa". Yes, indeed... Superb.
on 13 November 2013
Successful elderly writer Clare Wald, summons young journalist Sam Leroux to her home with the intent of allowing him to be her biographer, and their conversations illuminate her back story.
Set in modern day South Africa the events of the novel are placed against the backdrop of the fairly recent political upheavals of that nation, the findings of the Truth And Reconciliation Commission for example are referenced often. The novel is constructed in an odd way, and at times this made it difficult to read. Split into three sections it at times has sections from Clare's perspective and then Sam's interspersed with excerpts from Clare's final novel, a 'faction' named 'Absolution'.
Clare did not choose Sam for the task for no apparent reason Sam & Clare have a link, a link neither is able to discuss, and as Sam's narrative contradicts what Clare sets forth in 'Absolution' it becomes harder to know what really happened, and in some respects this is the point of 'Absolution' how, when in absence of the facts, we make up fictions in our minds of events we know to have happened but do not know the detail.
Another strand of Absolution revolves around guilt and responsibility, how responsible is a person when a remark they make sets forth a chain of events they didn't foresee culminating in disaster.
The problem with 'Absolution' as a novel and what makes it become hard work as a read is that these points about history and responsibility become laboured and the making of them ultimately occurs at the cost of the narrative : the plot becomes damaged and skewed by the authors apparent need to make them. A lengthy diatribe about censorship for example is just entirely out of step with the rest of the plot.
By far the most interesting aspect of 'Absolution' is the fate of Laura, a fate that is ultimately left hanging in mid air, with the onus on the reader to infer what they can.
All in all the novel is something of a mixed bag that does not entirely flow together very well despite containing excellent idea