Absolution by Patrick Flanery

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Five words from the blurb: South Africa, past, family, crimes, truth

Absolution is set in post-apartheid South Africa and looks at truth, censorship and whether or not it is possible to forgive past mistakes.

The book concentrates on Clare Wald, a South African novelist, who has decided to commission a biography of her life. She hires Sam to write the book and it quickly becomes obvious that they have a shared past. The connections between them are slowly revealed through a multi-layered narrative that is often confusing and contradictory.

Until these interviews began, in my mind she was her surname, a name acquired through a marriage that has now ended. Wald meaning ‘forest’, ‘woods’, ‘wood’ or simply ‘timber’. The surname has made me think of her and her work in this way – a forest of timbers that might be put to some practical use. Out of the forest emerges the person I’ve created in my head: half-ogre, half-mother, denying and giving, bad breast and good breast, framed by wood or woods. I try to find my place again in the list of questions I’ve prepare, questions that now seem rude, reductive, too peremptory, too simplistic and ungenerous in what they appear to assume.

The writing in the book was of a very high quality and individual scenes were vivid and packed with atmosphere, but I disliked the disjointed nature of the narrative. I appreciated what the book was trying to achieve, but the structure meant I was often frustrated. I disliked  being continually misled and ended up feeling I couldn’t trust anything that was being said. This led me to disconnect from the characters, so I failed to have an emotional response to the text.

The book feels like an accurate depiction of modern South Africa and it brings up many interesting moral questions. There is a lot to like, but I felt that understanding everything was too onerous a task. Sometimes less is more.

Recommended to fans of literary fiction who enjoy piecing together a complex narrative.


The thoughts of other bloggers:

…a complicated but beautiful book about the secrets that some people try to leave behind. A Bookish Affair

…a staggering, wonderful and accomplished book. Boston Bibliophile

It’s a book that asks difficult moral questions for which there may never be any satisfactory answers. Literary Corner Cafe


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  1. David says:

    When I read this last year my initial reaction would have been to give it five stars – it’s a literary thriller and as such it had me gripped, but I would now probably agree with your 4 star rating, Jackie. I loved the cleverness and complexity of it, and I enjoyed the way it played with ideas of truth, and of reconciliation (or absolution). But I also felt like it perhaps owed a bit too much to authors like Coetzee and Galgut (though the debt to Coetzee is sort of acknowledged in the story). Interesting what you say about it feeling like an accurate depiction of modern South Africa – having never been so I don’t know, but I recall there was a review in one of the papers by Christopher Hope who didn’t think it rang quite true. Which was funny, as when I was reading ‘Absolution’ I thought Flanery’s portrayal of Johannesburg was remarkably close to Hope’s own vision of the city in ‘My Mother’s Lovers’.

    Will you be reading ‘Fallen Land’? It too uses multiple voices and perspectives to tell the story but is less self-consciously Literary than ‘Absolution’ though still very much driven by ideas. Again, my opinion of it has perhaps dimmed just a little bit since I read it a couple of months ago, but it is still one of my favourite books of the year so far.

    1. Jackie says:

      David, I don’t think there is anything wrong with it owing something to Coetzee, Galgut etc. It didn’t feel as though it was copying them – it had its own distinct style. I’ve not been to South Africa either, but the descriptions rang true and were indistinguishable (as far as I could tell) from those written by South Africans. I’m willing to be corrected by someone who has lived in the country though.

      I will be reading ‘The Fallen Land’ soon. I’m pleased to learn it is a little less literary. I think maybe he was trying slightly too hard with ‘Absolution’ and with a bit more simplicity he could be an outstanding writer. I’ll let you know how I get on!

  2. David says:

    I agree, it didn’t feel like a copy by any means, but the influence seemed apparent, which is often the case with someone finding their own voice as an artist when the influences are still quite fresh and haven’t been fully assimilated. Amitav Ghosh’s first novel for instance was clearly influenced by Rushdie but still had its own flavour, but his voice became more distinct and individual over the years, and I think Flanery’s does too in ‘Fallen Land’.

    I too felt the descriptions rang true – like I say, they reminded me of Christopher Hope’s in particular which is why I found his review surprising (it was in the Guardian, by the way. This was the exact quote: “His South Africa is familiar, yet slightly, strangely, off-key. His portrait of Cape Town in its eerie sedateness is very good, even if Johannesburg eludes him.”). I suppose he must have been picking up on subtleties that someone (like me) who doesn’t know the country would have missed. Perhaps like how you’ll get American or Canadian authors writing about Britain or British characters and almost always getting it just that little bit wrong.

    1. Jackie says:

      David, Hope’s review is interesting. I wouldn’t be able to tell the difference between the atmosphere of Johannesburg and Cape Town so that explains why it felt realistic to those of us who haven’t been to the country.

      I look forward to comparing the writing style with ‘Fallen Land’ and hope I enjoy it even more than this one.

  3. Flo says:

    The book is going to be released in French in August and, reading the presentation of the publisher, I’ve had a headache. It seems both interesting and extraordinary complicated.
    Your review gives me the same impression but your conclusion is disturbing because I love literary fiction and complex (but understandable) stories.
    Plus, the fact that the author is American and not South-African bothers me. The story of this country is so specific that I wonder how a stranger can fully understands it.

    1. Jackie says:

      Flo, I wouldn’t say it is that complicated, but it is confusing at times and you do need to stay alert. I often have problems following what happening in complex books, but with this book it was more that the reader is subjected to several versions of events so you don’t know what is REALLY happening. It is understandable, just requires a bit of re-reading and alertness.

      I agree about the origin of the author. That often bothers me too, but in this case I think he’s pulled it off (although as a non South African I might not have spotted the problems – see above comments)

      1. Flo says:

        It is horrible: The more you say on this book, the more I’m both excited and upset :D

        I love to be confused by a story as long as the writer knows what he does.
        But, about the origin, the fact is that all the books I have read and that took place in South-Africa have been written by South-Africans (Coetzee – one of my favorite authors, Gordimer, Brink, Wicomb, Behr, etc. – I don’t know Galgut) and a few years ago, I read a collection of essays on South-Africa literature through History.

        I never went to South-Africa like David and you and I am not an expert but is the author an expert? I don’t know and it is especially important in the case of South-Africa. I agree with the last point underlined by David concerning writing about a country which is not yours – I notice it each time I read a book on France/French written by a foreigner, but when we deal with a country which History, including recent one, is more than particular, it is a little bit different; the writer must be especially careful in his interpretation.

        You write : ‘The book feels like an accurate depiction of modern South Africa …’
        Would you have written ‘feels like’ if the author were a South-African?

        If my library purchases the novel, I will give it a try. It is the best way to have an opinion on it.

        1. Jackie says:

          Flo, “Would you have written ‘feels like’ if the author were a South-African?” No. I wouldn’t have done that. I don’t know how well Flanery knows the country. (Has he lived there?) and I wouldn’t know which things to look for to catch him out. I may well have been very frustrated if I actually had real knowledge of what it is like to live there.

  4. stujallen says:

    thanks Jackie I have looked at this book a couple of times on the Kindle I may now take the dive and download it ,all the best stu

    1. Jackie says:

      Stu, I think you’d like this one – enjoy!

  5. Oo, I’m intrigued. I don’t love a disjointed narrative, but I do looooove unreliable narrators. Anyway I have been meaning to read more novels set in Africa. Adding this to the list!

    1. Jackie says:

      Jenny, If you like unreliable narrators then this is for you – I’ve never come across such unreliable story telling! Enjoy!


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