Patrick Flanery’s firstnovel, “Absolution,” sets out to combine diverse threads into one gripping plot: rebel activities in apartheid-era South Africa, the fraught relationship between a mother and her murdered daughter, the life of a writer under a regime of censorship and day-to-day living in one of the most economically unequal, dangerous societies in the world.
The central figures in this story are Clare, a famous but reclusive South African author, and Sam, a South African expatriate from her past who has returned to write her biography. With the explorations they make together, along with excerpts from Clare’s most recent novel, titled “Absolution,” Flanery builds a structure that allows him to place Sam at the center of the story’s numerous plotlines. Narrative momentum is provided by the question of what exactly happened to Clare’s murdered daughter.
Flanery is at his strongest when detailing the violence and horror that surround daily life in both contemporary and apartheid-era South Africa.
One stretch relates the eerie, salesmanlike way the regime showed off a set of mechanical cages along the beach that are used to torture captured rebels through simulated drowning. “It is a simple system, ladies and gentlemen,” says a government agent, “not unlike a fishing rod, but with an almost opposite purpose.”
Moving into the present era, Flanery creates suspense while narrating the break-in of a luxurious estate. The mere description of the complex security systems that wealthy South Africans cower behind makes them sound like prisoners in their own homes: “Once the alarm is set nothing must fall down, nothing must drop, nothing must stir, or you’ll have the guys down here in no time.”
Flanery excels here, but other parts of “Absolution” are weaker.
The prose is generally serviceable, but far from inspired and at times poor. For instance, the author tries too hard to give a sense of Sam’s alienation by exposing the differences between destitute South Africans and his relative wealth. Clumsy passages like this, which portrays Sam’s guilt after a beggar asks him for money, are common: “His jeans are frayed to above the ankles and his shoes are both missing the heel and quarter, the entire back part of the shoe, so they’re more like clogs, flapping and thwacking the floor with each step. I watch him leave and go back to eating my twenty-rand muffin, which tastes like the best muffin I’ve ever had and has been served with a ramekin of grated cheddar cheese and an individual pot of jam.”
Flanery also might have bitten off more plot than he could chew.
The first quarter of the book is thick with interesting thoughts about the nature of the censorship regime in apartheid-era South Africa. One begins to expect that the novel will be an examination of an author’s self-censored life, the sacrifices and justifications that it entails. But then “Absolution” shifts into a story about the dynamic between Sam and Clare and their mutual history. After this, it shifts again to a history of the armed struggle against the regime. But Sam is not an interesting enough character to hold these disparate elements together.
At length, “Absolution” feels as though it’s dabbling in many things, but not fully succeeding with any of them.
One hardly wants to fault a writer for ambition at a time when too many novels are beautifully wrought artifacts that leave no impression. Flanery is out to show us something grave and political, but “Absolution” probably should have been left for later, after he has mastered his craft.
For now, it shows us the gauzy stuff of his potential.
Esposito is the author of the forthcoming “The End of Oulipo? An Attempt to Exhaust a Literary Movement.”
By Patrick Flanery
Riverhead. 388 pp. $26.95