Absolution by Patrick Flanery


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


2010 Book Prizes

In a Strange Room – Damon Galgut

  Long listed for 2010 Booker Prize

In a Strange Room is made up of three short stories, each describing a journey taken by a South African man called Damon. There is so little plot that it is almost impossible to write a review without letting you know exactly what happens and so I won’t explain any more than that. If you’d like to know these details in advance then I recommend that you read this glowing review from The Guardian. I prefer to know as little as possible before starting a book and so instead of filling you in on the tiny amount of plot I’ll let you know my thoughts on the book.

As you might have guessed I wasn’t a big fan of In a Strange Room. The writing had a cold, almost clinical feel to it and this meant that I failed to engage with Damon (is it just me that gets annoyed when authors name their central character after themselves?). There was also a lack of punctuation, which added to the stilted feel.

What’s the matter.

Don’t you think we should get bigger maps. With more detail. Four or five of them for the whole country.

But what for.

Then we can plan every part of the walk.

But we can plan with this.

But not enough.

They look at each other, this is the first time they’re out of step.

There was a lot of thoughtful wisdom in this book, but there was almost no plot and therefore no forward momentum. Luckily the book was quite short (180 pages of well spaced type) and so I read it in one sitting.

I’m afraid that this one wasn’t for me, but if you enjoy literary novels with more theme than emotion then this may be for you.

Opinion is divided on this one:

….a deeply understood — and equally deeply troubling — narrative of what might happen if you choose to “travel” to escape your demons. Kevin from Canada

I did not care for it very much. Paperback Reader

I thoroughly enjoyed this intellectually engaging novel…. Nomad Reader

 Have you read anything written by Damon Galgut?

Which was your favourite?


1980s Nobel Prize

July’s People – Nadine Gordimer

 Nadine Gordimer won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1991

July’s People was our latest book group choice. Unfortunately I was unable to make the discussion, which is a shame as I think this is a book which benefits from being discussed.

July’s People is set in South Africa. The book follows the Smales, a white couple and their three children, as they are rescued from the violence taking place in their city. Their servant, July, takes the family back to his native village where they have to learn to cope in a world very different to the one they have left. The small rural community uses little money, finding everything they need in the forest. The Smales have to adjust to the reversal of power, relying on the black community to both  protect and provide for them. The book gives a fascinating insight into the difference between the black and white communities of South Africa and the delicate relationship between the two.

Unfortunately July’s People wasn’t an easy read. The prose was confusing and this meant that I often has to re-read entire sections in order to work out what was happening. There were no speech marks so it was difficult to tell who was speaking – sometimes the speaker even switched mid-line. This meant that I found myself concentrating on the words rather than what was happening. The effort it took to understand each page meant that any emotion that might have been present was removed. I felt very detached from all the characters and because I often didn’t know who was talking they lacked a unique voice, all seeming to merge into one. I found myself having to invent their feelings based on the situation, but this felt fake as I don’t really know how things must have been for them.

The premise for this book is fantastic, but the complexity of the prose ruined it for me.

Recommended to anyone who enjoys studying books rather than reading them.

The other members of the book group seemed to enjoy this book much more than me and they also found out more about the background of this book. I recommend you read their insightful reviews:

Kim’s Review, Simon’s review, Claire’s review, Polly’s Review

Have you read anything by Nadine Gordimer?

Are all her books difficult to understand?

1990s Booker Prize

Disgrace – J.M. Coetzee

 Winner of the 1999 Booker Prize

I had always assumed that Coetzee wrote complex books, which were difficult to read. This idea was confirmed when I attempted to read Summertime last year. I am trying to read all the Booker winners and so decided to get through Disgrace before it intimidated me any more. I was pleasantly surprised to find that Disgrace is a fantastic book, which is easy to read yet tackles many thought provoking issues.

Disgrace is set in South Africa and centres on a professor of Romantic poetry who is forced to resign from his position after he is discovered having an affair with a student. With nothing to keep him in the city he retreats to his daughter’s small farm, where they become the victims of a brutal attack.

I was surprised by how modern and readable the book was. I had the idea that Coetzee wrote pretentious, poetic prose, but this was the opposite. The writing was clean and simple, with no flowery descriptions. It was this simplicity that gave power to the words, drawing me into the disturbing life of South Africans struggling to adapt to their changing society.

I was gripped from beginning to end, reading the book in just two sittings. The title is very appropriate, as the book deals with one disgraceful issue after another. I was impressed by the way layers of symbolism were woven into the seemingly simple story. The fact that the book can be taken at face value, or studied to reveal more complex themes, means that this is the perfect introduction to literary fiction.

Disgrace is a worthy winner of the Booker prize and I highly recommend it.



Did you enjoy Disgrace?

Are any of Coetzee’s other books written in the same simple writing style?

2000 - 2007 Booker Prize

Bitter Fruit – Achmat Dangor

‘Bitter Fruit’ is set in post-apartheid South Africa, and explores the harsh realities of a mixed race family living in this transitional period. The central character is Mikey, and the book follows him as he discovers that his mother was raped by a white police officer.

It started off well, and there were many similarities between this book and ‘Purple Hibiscus’, both in writing style and content. Unfortunately, I began to lose interest about half way through the book. The characters failed to come alive for me. The surroundings were only described very briefly, so the sights and sounds of Africa did not come across, as they did in ‘Purple Hibiscus’ or ‘The Famished Road’. I felt like I was being told about these events, rather than feeling as though I was a part of them, as you are with a really good novel.

The reactions the characters had to the difficulties they faced didn’t seem very realistic, and the incest especially, seemed to have been thrown in for shock value, rather than any genuine reason.

Overall it was fairly average, with a reasonable plot, but characters that failed to engage me.