on March 24, 2012
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.
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 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 truth 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 a nonsensical idea of 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 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 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 May 20, 2012
I find myself somewhere between the two leading reviews . Yes, it is a wonderfully textured novel, bnringing to life a large cast with skill and assurance. Flanery is also a very good recorder of space - as a South Afriican, I could not fault him on locations I know well. And he does more than record - he registers the feel of the place acccurately and sensitively . I suspect that most South Africans will feel, as I did, that the obsession with security is rather overdone in the novel - but then, perhaps we have just become used to a situation that must strike an outsider as bizarre.
There can be no doubt that Flanery has the makings of a very good novelist. But where I agree with Sid Nuncius is that it all does rather go on and on, with the result that instead of working up to a climax (I understand that a resolution is too much to hope for in this post-modern age) the novel just unwinds, leaving the reader - this reader- rather unmoved and incurious. The long sessions between Clare and her son, in particular, seem a somewhat unprofitable mulling-over of stale material. A shorter way of saying this is that the novel is simply too long, and tries, in the manner of first novels, to include too much.. Also, I 'm not sure -and I really do mean that I am not sure - that the elaborate four-strand structure adds enough to the novel to justify the effort on the reader's part, not to mention the writer's part.
I read the novel with interest and enjoyment, straight after Gordimer's "No Time Like the Present", with which it has a lot in common. To read the two in conjunction is fascinating - the youthful excess and care of the one, the haughty disregard of the niceties of style and punctuation of the other. In a way, it is sad to have to report that the young upstart is a far better read than the old pro.
Absolution - set in post-apartheid South Africa - is so searing, well-plotted, moving and provocative that it is nearly impossible to believe that it is a debut book. In some important ways, it contains wisps of J.M. Coetzee's Disgrace, a book that similarly centers around the break-in of a home.
The theme is, indeed, Absolution, the freeing from blame, guilt and consequences. Nearly every key character in Absolution is seeking forgiveness, either from the living or the dead, and as such, they are microcosms for their nation - a place that is in true need of absolution.
Patrick Flanery masterfully layers his story in patchwork style. The conflicting points of view come from four different perspectives: that of Clare, an aging, reclusive and celebrated Cape Town author...Sam, her young chosen biographer who holds a mysterious connection to Clare...Clare's semi-fictional memoir - appropriately titled Absolution - which imagines what might have happened...and a fourth thread, which reveals what may, indeed, be the truth.
In brief, Clare is re-examining her past, which includes two pivotal deaths. Her hated sister, Nora, who held a pro-apartheid view, was gunned down years ago in what was likely a political reprisal. Clare's own daughter, Laura, an anti-apartheid activist, also disappeared without a trace. What culpability - if any - did Clare have in either of these deaths? Can Sam be the key to the absolution she seeks? And when Clare's home is senselessly broken into and an object of little monetary - but great personal - significance is taken, another question is raised: can a flawed memory hold its own kind of truth?
Absolution is but one of this book's riveting themes. Another is the falsity of the stories we tell ourselves. "It is possible, through a sense of vanity, either conscious or unconscious, to attribute crimes wholly to oneself in which one has only had a partial hand," Flanery writes. A little earlier: "History is not always correct, because it cannot tell all the stories that have been, cannot account for everything that has happened."
Like in many powerful books, definitive answers remain elusive. The truth of memory, Flanery implies, is no less accurate than literal truth. This was the last book I read in 2012, but it soars to the top of my personal "Best of 2012" list. It has everything I look for: complex characters, important themes, arresting and often lyrical prose, and stunning craftsmanship.
on March 2, 2013
Patrick Flanery's first novel is a provocative examination, not just of the vagaries of memory, but of the strengths and boundaries of fiction and non-fiction, biography and autobiography, and the borderless land that sprawls among them all--memoir.
A young white South African, having landed a book deal to write an authorized biography of an aging white South African novelist, sets out to get far more of the story than the subject is willing to yield--especially when it comes to a daughter who disappeared decades ago while an operative in the anti-apartheid movement. Or so it appears, for most everything will eventually change.
The narration alternates between the young writer and his subject, from first person to second person, from the narrative of the project to the story the subject will tell, and the one that she won't. Further explication would risk spoiling the ride. But I will say this: Don't be put off if you're confused in the early going; just read through the first half, knowing it will all begin to come clear soon enough. Then sit back and watch the peeling of the onion.
Complaints in some of the reviews I've read, about Flanery trying too hard to get a literary prize, for example, strike me as akin to complaints that Barnes' The Sense of an Ending felt contrived. Both books are fictional explorations of the vagaries of memory and the gloomy prism of retrospect, and I'll take more of the same from anyone as talented as these two. And for every sentence that might put one off, there are many more gems, like this one about two unrelated South Africans: "If there is a biological connection it is through the soil of our country: the dust underfoot, rich with life, and the dirt of decay that sticks to us all."
The strength of the story trades somewhat on the tragedy and irony inherent in South Africa's history, its path out of apartheid and the aftermath of all that. But how much of the drama and drive in the narrative is due to its particular setting, and how much to the needs and wants and wishes of us all, is difficult to judge and interesting to consider. I can't help feeling it's all the work of a new literary savant, wielding the tools of a sort of cosmopolitan realism. We'll know more with the second book.
I, for one, look forward to it.
One of the best books I've read. There are three major characters, two of whom, Sam and Clare, are unreliable narrators, and Clare's daughter Laura who lives only in their memory. The intricate, violent, complicated final days of apartheid in South Africa are rendered in four platforms, through narrative fiction and memoir. Lies are told and truths distorted. The story unravels but not in Roshomon fashion.
The truth is elusive, as elusive as memories of Laura and her motivations. What is truly remarkable about this book is that it is a debut novel, and further, that Flanery did not grow up in Cape Town or experience first hand the times he writes so eloquently about. This is a novel that shows promise beyond that of most first time outings. Need I say, highly recommended.
on March 2, 2013
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
on January 6, 2014
Absolution had me at hello, but lost me somewhat before it was time to say goodbye. There's been a lot of controversy inside my family around this book. When halfway through, I was so impressed by the book that I bought it as a Christmas present for my father. The love wore off for me in the second half, when I began to take umbrage with the portrayal of South Africa (I certainly don't feel that we live with the level of fear or the sense of omnipresent violence that comes through in the book, but perhaps some people do), but my parents both thought the whole book wonderful.
It is certainly superbly written if a little confusing in its structure at times. The story grips you and the plot is well paced. Overall, I would recommend the book but I do think that while its depiction of the difficulties of South Africa's past is superb, it doesn't get to grips sufficiently with the complexities (and hope) of the present.
on December 21, 2014
This book about South Africa spans the present and the past, interweaving the story of what might have happened to Laura, a young South African anti-apartheid activist 20 years ago, with the story of her mother, Clare, as she remembers the past. Clare is a well-known and aging novelist, who I would argue is drawn to resemble Nadine Gordimer. She has almost completely withdrawn from public life and battles with her past and how she might have been complicit in certain events. She has suffered not only the unexplained disappearance of Laura but also the loss of her own sister who was brutally murdered together with her husband. Sam is a young biographer whose task is to write Clare's life story, but it turns out his own past is linked to Clare's, and neither is sure of the other's motives during their repeated interviews.
A good read about apartheid and post-apartheid South Africa and the struggles of coming to terms with its past, although it started out stronger than it ended. Much of the story and the intricate interconnections between the characters are laid out or hinted at in the first few chapters, and the rest of the book doesn't do all that much to reveal new insights or twists that might have kept the reader's interest. Overall, however, it does a nice job of giving a portrait of South Africa, and how slippery the truth or different versions of truth can be to different people.