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Ambitious - but not as complex and challenging as I expected
on 30 April 2013
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.