Ever since I started this blog I have found all sorts of ways to find books to include on this site. Early on a combination of my own obscene stack of unread books (hence the name of my blog) and the Early Readers programme at Library Thing provided me with plenty of material. Then I was alerted to the fact that some publishers and distributors of books provide review copies of soon to be released books to bloggers so that we can get the word out there. It was on the basis of that tip that I have had the opportunity to read and review some great books from Allen & Unwin in the past few months. So far I have reviewed The Expats, Capital and The Man Without a Face.
My latest book from Allen & Unwin is Absolution by Patrick Flanery. I picked this up knowing very little about it, apart from the short blurb on the back of the book. This is Flanery’s first book too, so I knew nothing about him or his writing style. I knew that it was about South Africa, and thought it sounded interesting. But the only thing about South Africa that I have ever read is Bryce Courtney’s The Power of One. So still my preconceived ideas about this book were few.
Well, I have to say that I was very pleasantly surprised by this book. It is wonderfully written and quite clever with two terrifically compelling
narrators. As I said this book is set in South Africa and it tells the story of two writers. One, Clare Wald is a world-renowned author who spent much of her career commenting on the apartheid regime. The other Sam, is a young man who while born in South Africa, has since moved to the United States. Sam has been employed to write Clare’s biography and so he returns to his former home to see what has become of his homeland since the end of apartheid. As we follow each story we realise that they have more in common with each other than their shared birthplace.
This book was so easy to read it was almost ridiculous, given the heavy nature of the material he had to work with this is a remarkable feat. As you would imagine it is impossible to write about South Africa without talking about the tortured politics of that place. Flanery manages to cover the material in a way that is nuanced and sensitive. The book covers discusses the violence and the horrors of South Africa without casting judgment on one side or the other.
As the title suggests the central theme of this book is absolution. As we move through the narrative and delve into the personal, family and national histories that are woven together, we come to realise that in a place like South Africa, everyone is a victim, and everyone is guilty, and everyone is responsible for what happened, and no one is responsible. People need redemption and absolution. But how to you get that when what happened was so awful, and the people that you wronged are not here to give it?
The book also examines the nature of truth. It demonstrates that for any incident there can be many truths, depending on who is doing the telling. He shows that while the Truth and Reconciliation Commission while a nice idea, was inadequate to heal the wounds of the place because, by necessity, there was so much that could not be told.
As I say I was very surprised by this book. Far from being a heavy and dry politics lesson, this was a compelling and satisfying read. It isn’t preachy either. It doesn’t condemn out of hand those who now have been found to be on the ‘wrong side of history’ nor does it demonise those who felt that extreme action was the only way to effect change. It is sympathetic to all sides as being caught in history in a time and a place that few have come out of unblemished.
An excellent first novel from a clearly talented writer. I look forward to reading more from him in the future.