It is difficult to write about Patrick Flanery’s riveting debut Absolution without giving away too much of the plot. The novel centers on the character of Clare Wald, a distinguished South African writer. When her official biographer, Sam Leroux, comes to Cape Town for a series of interviews, it turns out they share a powerful connection: Sam knew Clare’s daughter Laura, whose radical politics led to her disappearance or maybe death more than a decade ago. Though Sam reveals their connection early on, it is unclear what Clare remembers or even how much she is willing to divulge.
Both Sam and Clare struggle with their ambivalence about their complicated homeland. Clare is haunted by guilt over what she perceives as the sins of her past, holding herself responsible for both the death of her older sister and Laura’s disappearance. Sam, who as a child lost his own parents in a Cape Town bombing, struggles to remember the exact chain of events that led to his meeting Laura and then leaving South Africa for university and a career in America. Returning to work on Clare’s biography and holed up in an elegant, but ominously gated Johannesburg compound, Sam wonders if he could ever make this country his home again.
Absolution is a beautifully crafted novel. Much like the complex country it describes, the narrative itself is fragmented. Both Clare and Sam tell their stories, but Absolution also includes portions of the “fictionalized memoir” that is Clare’s next project, in which she confesses her involvement in her sister’s death and imagines what ultimately happened to Laura. These chapters are interspersed with Sam’s childhood memories of the weeks after his parents died and his interactions with both Laura and Clare. Taken together, the four accounts represent the impossibility of arriving at any singular historic truth.
Though Flanery is American, he has thoroughly immersed himself in South Africa—its politics, geography and literature. His novel has some obvious similarities to works by South African authors, notably Nadine Gordimer and J.M. Coetzee. Yet Absolution is no pastiche. Flanery’s writing is graceful and rich in imagery. The novel moves like a thriller: The reader will be eager to discover how much Sam and Clare recall. At the same time, it explores complicated issues such as the impact of violence and the long-term effects of apartheid with an ethical gravity. Absolution is a must read for anyone interested in South Africa, or in literary fiction of the finest kind.