“What are the roots that clutch, what branches grow
Out of this stony rubbish? Son of man,
You cannot say, or guess, for you know only
A heap of broken images, where the sun beats,
And the dead tree gives no shelter, the cricket no relief,
And the dry stone no sound of water”
T.S. Eliot The Wasteland
Patrick Flanery begins his second novel, Fallen Land, with an immediate account of brutal, planned violence, recounted in cool, restrained, ungratuitous language. The year is 1919, and the violence is in America, in a wave of race riots. Flanery’s refusal to linger or indulge in overblown language to describe the events which start this novel, adds to the immediate shock and horror felt by the reader. His cool, dispassionate writing serves to underline a theme which runs through the novel – there is a quotidian violence at the heart of America, underneath its golden dreams of itself, there is always a darker history of blood, fear and hatred.
Jump forward to the post 9/11 world, the legacy of that violence still forms part of the breast milk of America’s dreams of itself, the land of the free, of opportunity – but its riches are built on the backs of the unfree, on land taken away, on land worked by others who were stolen from their own lands to work as slave labour for those who stole the land from the indigenous people
But this is no easy polemic, no easy bleeding heart liberal piece of writing, designed to make the reader feel good about themselves because THEY do not inhabit that world of casual racism and exploitation. As in his previous book, Absolution, Flanery is adept at working into the rounded, complex nature of a human being, forcing us to realise we cannot easily take the simplistic view of ‘me good, you bad’ – he constantly worms his way into the rot at the heart of the golden apple, and conversely the seam of gold inside the epitome of rank destruction.
One of his central characters, the architect and proto psychopath Paul Krovik, is himself part of that immigrant heritage that came to America in pursuit of that golden dream of the land of the free. Brutal, misguided, deranged he may be – but we are forced to inhabit the noble golden dreams which led to Krovik’s dark choices and downfall. The reader knows, from the start, this man is evil – but Flanery makes us look further and more deeply.
Set against the dysfunction of a society turning its back on the past, turning its back on its own evolutionary history, its connection to life and the land, is the keeper of connection the first person narrator of her story, and of what is human, humane, humanity, Louise Washington, descendant of those slaves.
Louise allows Flanery another voice – that of beauty, imagination, the power and magic of words, often taken for granted in the way the land itself has been taken for granted. Only Louise represents a thin hope for the future, holding a respect for the raped and fallen land, its trees, our ancestors, a living connection to the past, the fecund earth, before the American dream which was built on an idea of ‘the land’ but, without respect for the reality of ‘Gaia’, tarmacs over that complex, textured earth.
Flanery is, I fear, also writing the world we are busily creating, where the greedy maw of global corporate culture grinds up and destroys our unique, individual, messy, unconformist living human animal expression, leaving us robotic and without soul. Louise, and the two ‘dysfunctional’ children (read: real) Copley and Joslyn, may not be enough to stop us walking voluntarily into the machine
This is an EXTRAORDINARY book, about so many things, with so many layers, impossible to do justice to without spoiling and inhibiting the journey of discovery each reader will make. It has an absorbing story, a narrative, it has complex, interesting and well-drawn characters, it has language which is appropriate to character, subtle, textured and poetic when needed, plain and pared back when needed, it has complex and rich ideas, content and form. To read it, is to make a journey where you believe you are travelling in one way, to one destination, and suddenly you reach a view above the trees and realise there is a whole new vista and the view you have come from is not, after all, all there is. Layers upon layers unfold – but here is the magic – the book is all of a piece with itself.
Sometimes, superlatives cannot even begin to scratch the surface of how good a book is, or why.
Straddling and defying genres impeccably – thriller/crime, science fiction, literary fiction, my only reservation – and it is a big one – is – what on earth can I now read, that will not seem thin, pale, and not worth the time spent on it?. I do hope Patrick Flanery is working very diligently indeed on book number 3 – perhaps I should just slowly re-read Absolution again while I wait……………….
I am very grateful indeed to have received this review copy
And even more grateful to a fellow friend and Amazon reviewer Fiction Fan, who initially alerted me to Flanery in the first place – her review had me desperate to get this!