It is rare that a new novelist publishes to almost universal critical applause – even more remarkable that three top British publishers should be fighting over the right to publish within a month of first submission. This is the story of “extraordinary new writer” Patrick Flanery, author of Absolution (Atlantic Books: March 2012.) Pre-publication it appeared in the Waterstones 11 list of best debut novels for 2012 and post-publication (April) was long listed for the Desmond Elliott Prize for New Fiction – quite a build-up for this academic-turned-latest-literary-phenomenon.
The novel presents two central characters, Clare Wald, an ageing South African author and Sam Leroux, a young ex-pat journalist who returns to his homeland to write Clare’s biography. The story unfolds through four parallel narratives – the present day first person accounts of Clare and Sam and then two third-person accounts – 1989 which features the child Sam and Absolution – a third person account of Clare’s more recent history (which bears the same name as a “fictionalised biography” Clare has written to precede Sam’s “official” biography). Clare’s personal account also contains a story-within-a-story in which Clare tries to piece together the last days of her daughter, Laura, a political activist who disappeared in the height of the armed struggle. It is a clever although at times perhaps a little too complex device for exploring themes of loss and betrayal; truth-telling and the deceptiveness of memory; judgment and forgiveness – it takes a while to figure out how the four narratives fit together and by the end one can only speculate where the truth really lies.
Flanery excels in the use of the unreliable narrator – we guess that Clare’s fiction is probably closer to the truth than what she tells herself in her diary – she has spent her life as a writer avoiding government censorship, but admits to employing a self-censorship which is actually an evasion of moral censure for her own culpability in the family’s tragic history. Clare’s daughter (an enigmatic ghost throughout the story) poses the key challenge at the heart of the novel:
” … You know I don’t ask for absolution, since that’s something you don’t believe in and therefore can’t give, or won’t give. I only offer this document as my version of the truth, a truth among many. Bernard’s truth would be different, but he can’t speak. Sam’s truth would be different still, and he may yet speak. If you refuse to absolve me, will you also refuse to judge me, or does judgment belong to a different order of ethics?”
Flanery says that he turned to literature as a break from his doctoral thesis on Evelyn Waugh. The idea for a novel started around the idea of censorship and was not originally planned to be set in South Africa – but Flanery, married to a South African and having spent a lot of time in the Country “with extended family and friends, and living in domestic spaces” saw the potential for a great fit. In an interview with Graham Neill (The Bookseller: 29th November 2011) Flanery is conscious of the weight of the literary legacy he has stepped into: “I came to J M Coetzee, whose influence should be very clear, and also South African literature of the past 40 years and the way it combines extraordinary ethical seriousness with great storytelling,” he says. It is a winning combination – the epistemological debate around the writer’s obligation to truth-telling is earthed in an engaging personal story which does hold the reader’s attention. It is placed in a setting that is politically credible and psychologically astute
On a personal note, I have to admit that I came to the novel with an inherent bent to be critical – my own family arrived in South Africa from the UK in August 1985, a couple of days before the PW Botha’s infamous “Rubicon speech” – the townships were in flames while oblivious holiday-makers sunned themselves on the (all white) Durban beachfront. After a two-year work contract ended we returned to England but couldn’t settle and within a year had returned to South Africa where we are now naturalized citizens. We learned quickly that the South African situation is an intensely complex one, rarely done justice on the international front and often badly stereotyped by Hollywood (usually in the form of a minor thug/bullion thief/arms dealer with a particularly atrocious attempt at a South African accent.) I was therefore sceptical of the Wall Street Journal’s high praise: “an American writes a novel set in South Africa and gets all the details right—sights, sounds, cultural peculiarities”but on reading I had to admit that Martin Rubin is right about the meticulous research and attention to detail in Flanery’s work which earned him a great deal of respect in the South African reviews as well.
If I am allowed the mildest dissent from the overwhelmingly positive feedback it would be in this: Clare has a compelling voice but she is not sympathetic – even in the humanity of her dilemma. Adult Sam doesn’t quite fit the shoes that boy Sam steals from his evil Uncle Bernard. The white policewoman is little more than a pre-apartheid stereotype. I had the feeling Flanery didn’t fully love any of his characters? He captures many of the subtleties as well as the more outrageous facets of this troubled era of South African history. He elicits the horror, but doesn’t quite convey the love of South Africa I demand from those who dare step into these muddy waters. This is where the tone of the novel jars for me: crazy as it seems, South Africans love their country – in a way that Brits can’t quite imagine. I suspect that deep down Flanery knows this, judging by the cautiousness with which he fields invitations to comment on the present state of South African politics (and the fact that he is married to one!)
But hey (to use a South African colloquialism) – it’s just a novel (though one not likely to be sponsored by the South African Tourist Board, as one reviewer points out!) Flanery is an immensely skilled writer and undoubtedly a powerful new voice on the literary scene. I fully understand the appeal that he carries as a writer dealing with the exotic – but I would love to see what he does with something a little closer to home? It seems that I may not have long to wait: a second novel, set in the American Midwest, is already complete. It will certainly be on my latest Wish-List.
This review was first published on the Writers’ Hub.