Absolution by Patrick Flanery

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Absolution by Patrick Flanery

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Category: Literary Fiction
Rating: 4.5/5
Reviewer: Robin Leggett
Reviewed by Robin Leggett
Summary: Four stories braided together, set in modern day South Africa. Initially a little confusing, but stick with it and you will be rewarded with a superbly judged literary fiction story about what is the truth and how we deal with it.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 400 Date: March 2012
Publisher: Atlantic Books
External links: Author's website
ISBN: 9780857892003

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Long listed for the Guardian First Book Award 2012

If Patrick Flanery's South African-set debut novel Absolution is anything to go by, he could well be one of the next big names in literary fiction. It's complex and at times challenging, but ultimately an extremely rewarding reading experience.

The narrative is braided and follows several characters through four repeating chapter headings. Finding your way about what is going on here is initially somewhat confusing, and how they interplay together is part of the joy of the book and not something I want to reveal too much about to a potential reader. It starts with Sam, an academic who is returning to his native South Africa from the US to write a reluctantly authorised biography of Clare Wald, a difficult elderly writer. Secondly, there's a third-person narrative that starts with the aftermath of a house invasion at Clare's house. Thirdly, there is a first-person narrative set in the past about Clare's daughter Laura, who has since disappeared. The final thread is a flashback to Sam's own youth. We know from very early on that there is a shared past between Clare and Sam, of which Clare seems oblivious. It's that shared past that drives the novel. One of the threads is entitled Absolution which we learn fairly early on is Clare's own fictionalised, and soon to be published, memoir of events. But unlike with her initial contact with Sam, she is not deliberately obfuscating the truth - she simply doesn't know what happened. She's just trying to pull the threads together herself.

If that all sounds very confusing, then it is - at least at first. If you like your novels to start at the beginning and end at the end, then this isn't the book for you. But if you like the challenge of seeing how unreliable memories, imagined past and the truth interplay, then this is a terrific read.

On the surface, part of the message appears to be that for all the efforts of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, the issues in post apartheid South Africa remain difficult and no amount of raking over the past has healed intrinsic problems in the country. In particular the bits set in Johannesburg paint a continued picture of lawlessness and violence and strained relations between the races. But the book's strength is more in the deeper, more personal efforts to absolve individuals of the past rather than the acts of terror on both sides of the divide. Here there is no judge to listen to the sins of the past and to provide absolution to the victims or the perpetrators.

Don't expect any easy answers here. Clare is a difficult woman and has had her failings as a mother and, in her old age, it is these that dominate her thoughts. She knows she cannot change the past, but who can forgive her? There are also questions of which version of the truth, if any, is 'real'? And Clare is not the only one with a past that she might wish to change here.

Flanery orchestrates these multiple points of view and temporal leaps with the skill of a far more experienced writer and leaves the reader confused for far longer than most debut novelists would dare. Neither does he get tempted to tie things up with a neat bow at the end and some may find this challenging approach limits their enjoyment of the book. Indeed a little more signposting of the structure would be welcome - I found myself going back and re-reading all the Absolution chapters once I knew what was going on with them, but now I've given that snippet away, you won't have to.

It feels authentic, original and is a satisfyingly challenging and captivating read. Highly recommended for fans of literary fiction, while fans of a more conventional story-telling may well find this irritatingly confusing.

Out thanks to those nice people at Atlantic Books for introducing us to this exciting writer.

It's perhaps inevitable that this book brings to mind some of great South African novelists but if you are caught up in Clare's world, then it would be hard to imagine not enjoying Scenes From Provincial Life by J M Coetzee.

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Buy Absolution by Patrick Flanery at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy Absolution by Patrick Flanery at Amazon.co.uk Amazon currently charges £2.99 for standard delivery for orders under £20, over which delivery is free.
Buy Absolution by Patrick Flanery at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy Absolution by Patrick Flanery at Amazon.com.


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