Thursday, April 26, 2012
REVIEW: Absolution, by Patrick Flanery
I didn't break my hiatus to talk about The Hunger Games, or Joel Stein's article about adults reading YA, or even World Book Night. But I couldn't wait another minute to tell you about what might end up being my favorite book of 2012, Absolution, the debut novel by American expat writer Patrick Flanery.
The book tells the stories of Clare Wald, an elderly and celebrated author living in a kind of gilded prison in modern day South Africa, alone except for her maid. Sam Leroux is a writer and academic who's come to write Clare's biography, and she doesn't seem happy to have him there. Their relationship starts off testy and tense but nothing is as it seems. The story of Clare Wald and Sam Leroux and the secrets, lies and truths that bind them and tear at them is riveting and beautifully written; Patrick Flanery may be a debut author but he tackles these prickly, unpredictable people and writes about difficult social, political and personal issues like a seasoned veteran.
A biographer faces off against a seemingly unwilling writer; we've seen this before but in this case it's not so much a battle of wits as a slow unraveling. The perspective shifts between Clare, Sam, the book that Clare is writing about her dead daughter Laura, a disappeared activist who was taking care of the child Sam just before she vanished, and more. Memories are told, retold, and imagined; sometimes the tellers are lying, sometimes they just don't know the whole story. The death of one character, a man named Bernard who looked after the child Sam for a time after his parents' death, is told four ways, and in the end the truth eludes us and the characters, too. And that's not all. Laura isn't who she seems; Clare carries a burden of guilt over the death of her sister and brother-in-law that may not even be hers to carry, and there are some things only hinted at that we never know for sure. Absolution is a lot of things in this book; it's the title of Clare's last book and the theme of course, the thing that everyone wants and some find more successfully than others.
So Absolution is really a four-pronged success. Flanery's writing is mature and elegant; the book reads like Margaret Atwood with its layers and complexity and craft. The characters are vivid and three-dimensional, complex and elusive. The plot keeps you turning the pages; what happened to these people, what's going to happen? The setting, contemporary South Africa, is rendered as a frightening dystopia where people live in constant fear of murder and death; middle-class people live in 24-hour terror of a predatory underclass and install panic buttons in their showers and bedposts in case of attack. I wonder if the panic buttons and burglar bars serve as a metaphor for something inside these people, their vulnerability to guilt and abandonment, their yearning for love and forgiveness. Sometimes the measures people take to protect themselves save them; sometimes nothing can. And the plot clicks along at a very satisfying, page-turning pace. I can't recommend this book highly enough to readers of literary fiction. It's a staggering, wonderful and accomplished book. I hope his subsequent books live up to the promise of his astonishing debut.
Rating: BUY- like, now!
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FTC Disclosure: I received this book for review from LibraryThing.com as part of their Early Reviewer program.