At the core of Absolution (Atlantic, March), Partrick Flanery's excellent début novel, is an interview between a journalist and an author. Sam Leroux returns to his native South Africa to write the biography of Clare Wald, the doyenne of South African literature.
Flanery laughs when I point out the irony of our meeting; I am a journalist trying to seek answers about an author's life and work through an interview. "But I'm not Clare," he laughs. Which is probably a good thing for me as she is a self-confessed "terror".
It is difficult to write too much about Absolution without giving the plot away. Uncovering and piecing together the mysteries and secrets of Clare and Sam is a challenging but rewarding experience. Its braided narrative follows several characters; Leroux in the present day as he interviews Clare and tries to resettle in South Africa after years in the United States; a third-person narration about the aftermath of a house invasion at Clare's house; a first-person narrative set in the past about Clare's daughter Laura, who has since disappeared; and a flashback to Leroux's own youth. Sam reveals almost immediately that he and Clare have a shared past, which she appears oblivious to. Exactly what their shared past is is at the novel's core.
Flanery's partner is South African and he turned to its literature as a break from his doctoral thesis on Evelyn Waugh. "I came to J M Coetzee, whose influence should be very clear, and also South African literature of the past 40 years and the way it combines extraordinary ethical seriousness with great storytelling," he says. "They are so extraordinarily attentive to the problems and pitfalls of any act of representation in writing. In that sort of model, I found possibilities that I hadn't found in contemporary British and American writing in the same way."
As well as Coetzee, the book is strongly reminiscent of Margaret Atwood's The Blind Assassin, in its interwoven narratives and theme of how someone confronts their own past and questions even if they can. Flanery confesses he didn't read that book until several months after finishing Absolution but says Atwood's Surfacing was an influence on the novel. He says: "Atwood is one of the living writers that I return to because her ideas and her formal experiments are very interesting."
He describes South Africa as "the most and least like America" of any country he has visited. He says: "The way South Africa has been able to face its history of subjugation, in a way America has not, is really fascinating. The Truth and Reconciliation Process, for whatever its flaws, was at least a very important act and a great experiment. I don't think we will ever see something like that in the States, either about the treatment of African Americans or the treatment of Native Americans."
In Absolution Flanery revisits South Africa's apartheid past in both Sam's flashbacks and Clare's memories. But in revealing the poverty and inequality, with affluent South Africans living behind security gates as well as frequent begging on the streets, Flanery shows South Africa needs to confront and deal with the problems of its present.
However, he argues it isn't as straightforward as suggesting South Africa has squandered the promise of the post apartheid-era. "That's one of the fascinating things about South Africa. Every social moment is, I don't want to say fraught, but inflected with so much social and historical complexity. Every relationship, even a casual exchange between a patron and customer in a store, is encoded in the history of race and social deprivation. To a certain extent, the promise has been unfulfilled. I don't think it was ever going to be an easy prospect so therefore to say the promise has been squandered, I wouldn't entirely agree with."
Weight of history
The weight of history on the present also falls heavily on the book's two main characters, particularly in how they are linked. Absolution's characters have uncertain memories of the past. Sam's character remembers seeing a truck full of bodies as a child, which may or may not have actually happened. Flanery suggests this doesn't matter, as if someone has a memory of something happening, it has an effect on them.
He says: "When you have two people who have a shared experience that is traumatic, you are inevitably going to have the phenomenon of two different perspectives of it. Even in order to give voice to one perspective in that kind of meeting is extremely difficult. It's not baring your soul but it's baring something extraordinarily profound and presenting it to someone you know may have a different perspective and therefore calls into question your own memory."