Where reality and narrative meet, interweave, tangle and entwine
Absolution was one of the best novels I had read in a while, and it continued to haunt me after finishing it. What is particularly remarkable is that this is the author’s first novel. How did Flanery manage something this complex and assured, and written so sparely and without self-indulgence – the writing itself has clarity which reminds me of Damon Galgut, a writer FROM South Africa. Flanery, writing ABOUT South Africa, has a similar voice, but is American born and bred, now UK resident, but he `feels’ like a Southern Africa writer, in intensity, political engagement, and sense of space and isolation: Galgut, Paton, and most particularly `Rhodesian’ born Doris Lessing.
Lessing is the writer this book most reminds me of, not just because the central character, Clare Wald, is a writer, writing a layered Lessing like book, Absolution, about the interface between personal and political history, but also because of certain structural similarities to Lessing’s hugely groundbreaking 70’s novel, The Golden Notebook, which contained many interweaving separate stories, written by the central character, so that the book was as much about writing, and the interface between reality, what is and what is not `objectively’ real, and how we all interpret out-there reality to form a subjective reality.
Absolution’s meta-story is a biography of the writer Wald, which is being written by a South African currently resident in America, Sam Leroux. Wald is mysterious, complex, layered, with a dark personal history, a political engagement against apartheid, which spans her parent’s and her children’s generations. She is writing a novel, Absolution, which may or may not be fiction, and includes, or may not include, autobiography. In order to write her book, she uses notebooks left by her mysteriously vanished politically activist daughter. The biographer Leroux also has his own troubled history with South Africa, and with Wald. So, like The Golden Notebook, we have several stories, and read each of them interwoven, Sam’s voice, recounting his past, his present, his dark secrets, his connection with Wald, Clare Wald’s account of her present, her past, and her secrets, the novel culled from some autobiographical events which may or may not have been used fictionally, Absolution, and various dated accounts which represent versions of reality and may have come from Wald’s daughter’s notebooks, but are also various representations of Sam’s reality. Who is of course also a writer.
Lest this sound impossibly convoluted, Flanery’s skill is to understand that the complex subject matter needs clear telling, to keep the reader able to let the various strands and versions of reality interweave and knot. In a sense, the point is not to try and work out which reality is real and which is the fiction of the writers, it is to accept that we all work and rework our personal history, our motivations for our actions, and the place we take in our own time and place, and how that intersects with the `objective reality’ of the time and place we live in. `Truth’ – the what happened, why did it happen is not linear, it is approached from perspectives.
A fabulous book, written by someone who does not appear to be in the process of becoming a wonderful writer, but has sprung into being fully formed