This is my review of Absolution by Patrick Flanery.
Set in post-apartheid South Africa, "Absolution" focuses on the celebrated but prickly novelist Clare Wald, who has permitted the little-known young Sam Leroux to interview her for a biography on the thin basis that "I've read your articles and don't think you're an imbecile".
Flanery succeeds in building up a sense of suspense and secrets to be revealed. Born to a liberal family, how did Clare manage to stay in South Africa and continue to write without falling foul of the authorities? For what sins does she crave absolution? She is clearly haunted both by the death of her sister Nora and the disappearance of her daughter Laura, for whose terrorist leanings she feels in some ways responsible. Does she recognise Sam, and what is his role in her past? What is Sam's ulterior motive in seeking her out? Why do these two find it hard to ask each other the questions which they need answered?
The story unfolds against a background of disappointing yet perhaps inevitable ongoing corruption and violence, with a vivid portrayal of the insecurity felt by whites in modern South Africa combined with a residual excessive privilege, the continual fear of robbery and elaborate security precautions which make them virtual prisoners in their luxurious homes.
The core of the book is an examination of the difficulty of knowing the truth about events, on both a personal and a political level, despite the work of the "Truth and Reconciliation Committee". This is due to people's differing perceptions of the same event, the gaps in memory caused by trauma, the desire to cover one's tracks, or to spare the feelings of others.
What other reviewers have seen as deep and impressive complexity appears to me to be unnecessary convolution. The use of four main parallel plot strands, combined with the device of describing the same event in different ways, makes for confusion at times. There is too much repetition of certain thoughts and memories, whilst details of some key events are left vague – perhaps this is intentional. Ironically, after leaving so much open to interpretation for so many pages, the end seems to spell out too prescriptively what the reader is supposed to think.
The important political and moral discussions between Clare and Sam often seem too wordy, earnest and stilted. I grew tired of Clare's endless tortured dreams and visitations from ghosts. Overall, there seems to be too much reporting or recalling of events, not enough acted out as scenes.
I agree with the reviewer who felt that this first novel has been written with literary awards in mind. The result is a little uneven with some striking, if studied, descriptions alternating with passages which seem slipshod and in need of further editing. I also agree that some of the philosophising about the nature of truth at the end is a little lame.
To conclude on a positive note, for an American to absorb and convey a sense of South Africa, the scenery, vegetation, lifestyle and atmosphere, seems quite an achievement.