Absolution: Challenging but rewarding
There is an intriguing F Scott Fitzgerald short story from 1924 in which a schoolboy is forced at his father's behest to confess his sins to the local priest. It is notable because it is uncharacteristic thematically - no thwarted young love, no moral or financial wrack and ruin - and structurally. In the first section we are shown Father Schwartz's perspective, in the second that of the penitent boy, and in the third his father's. Such strands are left to dangle, until Fitzgerald braids them into a tighter, more cohesive unit for the final two sections - boy and father, then boy and priest. In part four we find the boy sweating with fear during communion. He watches the congregation file from the altar back to the pews and senses they are "alone with God", whereas he is "alone with himself". The story's title manifests the "religious content: Absolution.
California-born Patrick Flanery's first novel shares the same title and unfolds itself through similar, alternating kaleidoscopic viewpoints. At the centre of Absolution is celebrated but reclusive author Clare Wald, who lives prosperously in Cape Town - alone without God and alone with herself. Along comes a young academic, Sam Leroux, who has admired her work for years and now wants to set up a series of interviews to write her biography. Flanery hints at a "buried connection" between the two that transcends that of biographer and subject, and keeps us guessing while Clare lays bare her past and the ghosts and guilt that haunt her. So flows Sam's section, the main narrative stream. The other three start off as discrete entities but eventually intersect. In "Clare", we find the writer attempting to confront her demons by chronicling a second-person version of the events that led to the disappearance of her daughter, a firebrand opponent of the apartheid state, and the murder of her sister, Nora, an adherent of the old order. Absolution is Clare's memoir which highlights more of her shortcomings as a mother, plus the insecurity and insomnia that torment her after burglars break into her house; and a final section with dates as headings charts Sam's history, from his hardscrabble youth with his brutal half-uncle to his adult awakening as he tries to piece together the circumstances surrounding the death of his activist parents.
Absolution's multifaceted framework is complex and at times confusing - jagged timelines and dizzying vantage-points result in an intricate mesh of alternative realities - but perseverance pays rich dividends. Crabby, opinionated Clare is a fascinating creation, a haughty queen immured in her "country-club fortress". At first wary about Sam's project ("Biography is cannibalism"), and aloof towards him in his role as "auditor, interlocutor and elegist" and hers as "hostage" ("I have summoned my own judge, perhaps even my own executioner"), she warms as she unloads, realising that letting Sam in might lead to a better understanding of her deserted daughter. Their question-and-answer sessions begin on an unequal footing, with Sam doubting the worth of his facile questions, but when he gains in confidence they operate like two chess grandmasters: one constantly probing, the other playing a dexterous game of evasion and subterfuge. Questioning becomes grilling, particularly on the themes of censorship (did Clare collaborate with the censors in order to work "relatively unmolested"?), family loyalties and the quest for what turns into a rare commodity, truth.
For Flanery makes Clare a deeply unreliable narrator. Sam is warned in advance by her son who describes his own mother as "duplicitous and self-serving". She accedes that she needs an official biography because Absolution refuses to cleave wholeheartedly to the truth, being rather "a volume of fictionalised memoirs". In one of many flashbacks she highlights the difference between herself and her journalist daughter: "You wanted to tell the truth, I to fabulate and fabricate." Of course a novelist must be guiltlessly engaged in "professional lying" but if this memoir has been fictionalised, how much should we believe? It doesn't help that Clare is reconstructing her daughter's last movements aided by Laura's notebooks and letters which have "gaps yawning": "There are periods for which no one can account, missing ligatures of motivation and event and development between more or less established fact, without which the bones of the story would make no sense, fall to the ground, have no possibility of mobility or unity of structure, no life. I need to will those ligaments into being, put flesh upon the facts, decide whether it is a serpentine monster or a 10-armed goddess."
Interestingly, radical Laura goes by the nom de guerre "Lamia", that monster in woman's form in ancient demonology, and tells people it was her "mother's sense of humour". Laura has to invent to stay alive; her mother, faced with "lacunae in the archive", admits to writing a "fractured narrative of longing and lamentation"; but when Sam also alerts us that the version of his life he has been recounting to his girlfriend is comprised of half-remembered events in Clare's books, we are forced to read on in the same way that Sam receives each new revelation from his slippery interviewee: sifting for nuggets of truth, refusing to accept each declaration at face value, being every time reluctant to trust. Even maps are described as "a tracery of lies".
Flanery performs a neat conjuror's trick with Absolution - incrementally unravelling with one hand while concealing something else with the other. The book is studded with such binaries. South Africa's past was peopled with those that towed the party line and survived, and ANC militants like Laura who were mercilessly punished. The present-day rich-poor divide shocks Sam, the returning native, from the abject poor panhandling on the streets to the comfortably wealthy in their caged communities (Sam's house in Johannesburg is a "luxury bunker"). Clare's orderly garden becomes a metaphor for the country's two types of inhabitants, both its "indigenous specimens" and "exotic interlopers". Towards the end, Clare alludes and adds to the dualism at play throughout when summarising her confessions to Sam: "I had nothing to give but what I gave. It cannot be one thing or the other, black or white. It is both and neither and something else, something in between." Elsewhere, Flanery has echoed his character's ambiguity in stating how struck he was by the ways South Africa is "the most and least like America" of any country he has visited.
Already Flanery is being compared to big names such as Graham Greene and JM Coetzee. The former is too easy, a routine and convenient shorthand for novelists who serve up tension and (preferably theologically tinged) guilt in an exotic locale. The latter is simply inevitable, although here, at least content-wise, there is room for a valid argument. Both writers have written about professors and academics, crime and violence; the young, neglected Sam's fight for survival is redolent of Coetzee's peripatetic Michael K; Age of Iron features an elderly protagonist looking back on South Africa's inner turmoil and her own life by way of an extended letter to her daughter; and most pertinently, Summertime deals with a biographer at work on a book about a writer and conducting interviews. (In it, the writer-character Coetzee gives another character a copy of Dusklands, Coetzee's debut. "What is it?" I said. "Is it fiction?" "Sort of.") In Absolution Sam stumbles upon the literature his aunt has hidden from the authorities; Dusklands is there, as are many books by Clare Wald.
But Coetzee's novels are, essentially, too allegorical and metafictional. Absolution, for me, seems closer in spirit to Ian McEwan's similar-titled novel, Atonement: both delight in hoodwinking the reader by introducing equivocating characters who recast themselves to explore the blurred boundaries between truth and imagination. In the end Flanery is arguably more daring for constantly muddying the waters he creates and stubbornly refusing to offer clear solutions. Clare brings an end to her "self-exorcism" and comes round to conceding that "the record of memory, even a flawed memory, has its own kind of truth" - which confirms our original suspicions but strengthens our attachment to a wonderfully beguiling creation. Thanks to Clare, and Flanery's consistently eloquent, often beautiful prose, Absolution emerges as a challenging, thought-provoking and tremendously assured debut.
Malcolm Forbes is a freelance essayist and reviewer.