Patrick Flanery was raised in mid-west America, lives in London and has a doctorate in 20th century English literature from Oxford University. Absolution, his magnificent debut novel, is set in South Africa.
Two key characters are present in the narrative, while one key character is missing. Sam Leroux returns to South Africa to write the biography of well-known author and critic, Clare Wald. Her daughter Laura went missing during the apartheid regime, her sister and brother-in-law were killed, and she wrote under the constraints of censorship. Much of this haunts her on a daily basis.
The excavation of a life takes Sam - and returns Clare - to the terrible twists and turns of the past. The novel leads us to the shadowy effects of apartheid, to the elusive and shifting face of truth and to the way individuals are complicit in terrible deeds to great and to miniscule degrees.
Flanery has written overlapping and conflicting points of view that make the search for truth moving but hard to pin down. Added to the sections written in the voices of Clare and Sam, there are the extracts from Clare's latest novel (also entitled Absolution) and the story of a boy whose identity is slowly revealed. Fiction rubs against truth which rubs against imagined truth.
The beauty of this book (beauty sounds slightly incongruous when the subject matter is so dark) is in the craft of the author. The surprising revelations keep adding layer upon layer of flesh to the key characters, and as a reviewer I don't want to spoil the effect by giving plot summaries that spill the beans and dilute the reading experience.
Flanery focuses on the details of a handful of individual lives and the detail becomes a gateway to the wider picture of apartheid. Individuals struggle with the truth (what really happened? what was my role?), while the government and its institutions employed its own perverse economy. Flanery represents the contrasting behaviour of his white characters, but he doesn't cast judgment.
Censorship is a strong thread both at a national and a personal level. Off-the -record, Clare told Sam she imagined a doppelganger named Clara stood at her shoulder as she wrote, forcing her to change every wayward word and punctuation mark. It got to the point where she was no longer sure how much of Clara took over.
Does it make a difference here that Flanery is a scholar of literature and has only experienced South Africa in small doses? Will his portrait of apartheid ring true to those who have lived through it?
While the flavour of place might not necessarily hit the mark, the bigger issues do.
This is a novel that examines the way violence, resistance, subversion and complicity eat away at daily life, and the way the search for knowledge and absolution is unbearably difficult.
When the young boy discovered Clare's books, he discovered "whole floors and staircases and wings of space that were at once in keeping with the architecture of the small house he knew, but at that same time made it something else altogether". This is true, too, for Absolution. It is a timely read.
Paula Green is an Auckland poet and children's author.