Thursday, April 26, 2012

REVIEW: Absolution, by Patrick Flanery

Absolution, by Patrick Flanery. Published 2012 by Riverhead Books. Literary Fiction.

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!

Buy it from Powell's:
Absolution
by Patrick Flanery
Powells.com
I'm a Powell's partner and receive a small commission on sales. 

FTC Disclosure: I received this book for review from LibraryThing.com as part of their Early Reviewer program.

16 comments:

JoAnn said...

You got my attention on twitter yesterday. I'm so glad you decided to post about the book. It will be my next purchase!

caite said...

the Margaret Atwood comparison got my attention!

JaneGS said...

What a great review for what sounds like a terrific book. I like elegant writing, regardless of the story.

> 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.

I liked your insight here--well done.

bermudaonion said...

I got all excited because I thought I had this book, but I don't. :| I've added it to my list of books to look for.

Melissa said...

Great review, I immediately want to go out and buy it. I'm most intrigued by the Atwood comparison, as well as the fast pace. I don't think i'm in the proper mind right now to read a slower pace novel, and I seem to be in a reading rut. This is not something I normally would pick up, just what I need to get me out of this slump.

Harvee said...

A book to remember as a good literary novel. Nice review!

Zibilee said...

I just ordered this one from the library, because I don't need to be told twice! A recommendation with this much zeal while you are on hiatus is something that is not to be ignored! Fantastic and very evocative review today, Marie. I loved this post, and also love the new look. So wonderful!

Vasilly said...

Wow! This sounds like a wonderful book.

Sandy Nawrot said...

Holy cow woman. I think you got my heart rate up even, just hearing about this one. I'm going to go visit the library (and possibly have to get in line behind Heather) and see exactly what forms they have this book.

Nana Fredua-Agyeman said...

To begin with, I like the new look. I see a lot of changes has been made to the blog.

This story is fascinating. I was instantly interested when you said it could be your 2012 favourite book for readers are usually careful, especially since we've just began the second quarter. Yet, I was fully enthralled by your description. I like the idea of stories being told from different perspectives and in the end not getting the grasp of it. It's what we do.

This is a wonderful post.

Anna said...

Wow, what praise! I'll have to see if my library has this one.

Mystica said...

Praise indeed. It will have to go on to a list of books to be read.

picky said...

I'm absolutely sold. I love these sorts of stories where the perspectives are formed over time, and either that time or dishonesty has shaped the memories and the psyche.

And this is totally off topic, but when you first introduced it, it vaguely reminded me of a nonfic book I read last year, The Bolter. I think you'd enjoy it.

Kathleen said...

This sounds wonderfully complex and well worth reading. I'm looking forward to adding it to my list and to also seeing what the author might do next!

Creations by Laurel-Rain Snow said...

Sounds like a must-read...you had me at the comparison to Margaret Atwood...

I love shifting perspectives when done well, and this one does grab my attention. Complexity and layers are favorites of mine.

susan2david said...

I have this on my ereader, I am glad you liked it. Can't wait to read.