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Absolution by Patrick Flanery

Absolution (2012)

by Patrick Flanery

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Great writing by an exciting new voice. Multiple narratives tell the story about a well-known but reclusive writer Clare Wald and her official biographer Sam Leroux who has come back to Cape Town after many years in New York. There are ties that connect that these two and parts of the book reads like a literary thriller as we race to end, trying to figure out who remembers what about the other. But there are lots of big ideas - reconciliation, forgiveness, and the violence of post-Apartheid south Africa. Stunning debut. ( )
  laurenbufferd | Nov 14, 2016 |
This is a story of lives lived in ways which give cause for regret. This is becoming a genre. Ian McEwan talked about [b:Atonement|6867|Atonement|Ian McEwan|http://photo.goodreads.com/books/1320449708s/6867.jpg|2307233]. Here the quest is for Absolution. In both cases memory and remembrances are fluid. They are fuzzy or not reliable. The quests for Atonement and Absolution become larger, more significant then the events that precipitated the need.
Will this bring us to [b:The Sense of an Ending|10746542|The Sense of an Ending|Julian Barnes|http://photo.goodreads.com/books/1311704453s/10746542.jpg|15657664]? All of these books are characterised by muddy memories and relative truths, and unreliable authors within the stories.

It’s hard to believe that this is the first novel from Patrick Flanery. It is a self-assured and complex work that braids together the related stories of several characters. Clare is a famous South African author, a bit of a curmudgeon, who is working with her biographer. (If this was ever made into a movie, Maggie Smith would be perfect for the role.) She is using her own literary skills as a tool to clarify mysterious past events involving her family’s roles in the political history of South Africa, but she is a bit obtuse with her young biographer who struggles to understand how his own life has figured into hers. Most of the novel leads to discovering why Clare feels the need for absolution.

Flanery’s writing is intelligent, incisive, and he can write a mean bit of suspenseful action. “Before killing you they would burn the names from your mouth, pull syllables from your fingernails, soak vowels and consonants from your nostrils, remind you of their authority with steel and wire, electricity and fire.”
There was an intense scene of a home invasion, where you could almost hear the scared breathing trying not to be heard, the tense silence broken by stealthy creaks. Clare is interviewed by police afterward, and that becomes a brilliantly Kafka-esque interaction.

There are wonderful gems of prose. On family: “One can but sow the seed and provide the proper environment, and hope that the flower promised by the illustration on the packet is the one that will grow, trust that the hybrid will not revert to the characteristics of some earlier generation, or be so transformed by unpredictable and wholly external factors – a drought, a storm, environmental pollution – that the seed mutates and something unrecognizable grows.”

Or when one’s vacation plans are suddenly upset by a phone call with unexpected news: “Lying in bed that morning, the phone still in his hand, he could feel the broken expectation of that escape raining down around him, and then he realized the rain was not just in his head but outside the window, a shower of ice that began to coat the glass, contorting their view of the traffic, the canary sludge of taxis, bleeding brake lights along West End Avenue.”
And I loved this description of a minor character: “Timothy is overripe and over-processed. His nails have been manicured, his suit is more expensive than anything I’ll ever be able to afford. He’s rotten with success.”

Flanery is American but writes convincingly of what daily life is like nowadays for some in cities like Capetown and Johannesburg. Some descriptions were so detailed that I followed along in Google Maps Streetview. That was an interesting exercise — I felt as if suddenly I was seeing the scene as the author saw it in his own mind.

This book has been one of the best I’ve read in a few months. ( )
1 vote TheBookJunky | Apr 22, 2016 |
The New Yorker
April 30, 2012
Patrick Flanery’s “Absolution.”
By Philip Gourevitch

In South Africa in the nineteen-eighties, the military wing of the African National Congress was on the attack. The anti-apartheid guerrillas rarely let a week go without action—dynamite at a fuel depot, a car bomb outside Air Force headquarters in a city center. It was a war without regular combat, waged by clandestine operatives: spies and saboteurs, bomb-makers and bomb-planters, commandos, sleeper agents, and assassins. The white-supremacist government called them all terrorists, and the state security forces hunted them accordingly, but the attacks were unstoppable: four people killed in one incident, fifty-seven wounded in another. There was always the next blast.

The A.N.C.’s guerrilla force—known simply as MK, or, more formally, Umkhonto we Sizwe (Spear of the Nation)—had been around since 1961. Nelson Mandela was a founder and, for the three years before he was sentenced to life in prison, its commander-in-chief. Back then, the main mission was sabotage, blowing up government infrastructure, and an effort was made not to kill anyone in the process. But two decades later MK was killing without compunction—grenades would be bowled into a Wimpy Bar burger joint, or a trip-wired limpet mine planted in an amusement arcade—and Mandela did not object. In 1985, when the government offered to release him from prison if he would only repudiate the armed struggle, he refused. In 1990, he was let out anyway, and on the day of his release he addressed a rally, where he said that MK was formed as “a purely defensive action against the violence of apartheid,” and declared that “we have no option but to continue.”

Four years later, the struggle was over, South Africa was a democracy, and Mandela was its popularly elected President. The leaders of apartheid had finally given up defending their savage power and negotiated to relinquish it. The handover was efficient and orderly, and we often hear that South Africa made a peaceful transition from fascism to majority rule. But that story makes no sense. Apartheid would not go gently. Unrelenting violence was needed to secure its surrender.

Part of the deal was an understanding that there would be no further campaigns of punishment. Instead, all the parties to the long years of bloodshed and terror were called together to remember them before the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. The surviving victims testified about—and frequently relived—their traumas, and the people responsible for those traumas, defenders and opponents of apartheid alike, were invited to account for their conduct, and to ask the T.R.C. for amnesty: a warrant of immunity from prosecution for political crimes committed in the time of apartheid.

The T.R.C.’s purpose was not to dispense justice but, rather, as its grandiose name suggests, to extract from its witnesses a collective historical truth with which to reconcile a divided country. But what if the truth is not comforting? What if the truth is useless? What if too much of that truth is irretrievably lost to the past, because the only people who knew it were killed by it?

To the South Africans in Patrick Flanery’s uncommonly thought-provoking first novel, “Absolution” (Riverhead), the past is largely a source of anguish, and its torments are most acute when the facts are most elusive. Like the T.R.C. itself, Flanery’s novel is a patchwork of imperfect and conflicting reconstructions, stitched together from multiple sources. Among these sources are fictionalized T.R.C. transcripts, like this testimony given at a 1996 hearing, on the case of Jimmy Sukwini, the victim of an A.N.C. bomb attack:

“Can you tell us, Mrs. Sukwini, how your life changed after your husband’s death?”

“Mr. Chairman, this is the worst thing that can happen. I don’t think I have to [indistinct] very hard for us after he died and we went to live with my parents. . . . I understand why the comrades did what they did but I think maybe it should not have been like this. I don’t know. I was not a part of these things. I am only a teacher.”

“Thank you, Mrs. Sukwini. Is there anything else you would like to say?”

“Only that I am still waiting for someone to come to me, to say to me that they are sorry, that they wish for me and for my daughters that my husband did not die. I am still waiting. Please, will you tell them to come find me?”

The frank power of this woman’s unmediated voice, reckoning with her husband’s murder at the hands of her political liberators, and asking only for recognition and an apology, hardly seems to call for narrative elaboration. But in “Absolution” we read Mrs. Sukwini’s testimony through the eyes of the novelist Clare Wald, an aging lioness of South African letters. She is searching in the archives for traces of her daughter, Laura, who joined the armed struggle and, in 1989, disappeared. To Clare, every unclaimed bomb attack from Laura’s time of action might be her doing.

So the unhealed wounds of a victim’s widow open onto those of a perpetrator’s mother, and a nation’s quest for unifying knowledge founders on individual uncertainties. Clare cannot decide if her daughter should be remembered as a terrorist or as a hero. As a novelist, she has always made good use of such ambivalence, and embraced ambiguity. But she is also a mother, who cannot even be certain that Laura is dead, and who is furious at her for leaving behind so many unanswerable questions.

Sam Leroux, the novel’s other central character, has similarly complex feelings about his parents, who also took up armed resistance on behalf of the A.N.C., and were consumed by it. Sam, too, is a writer, though of a nonfictional bent. He’s working on a biography of Clare, and although she’s old enough to be his grandmother, it’s clear from the moment he arrives to interview her that there is history between them. The nature of this history emerges only slowly, and with considerable suspense, but it is not giving too much away to say that, when Sam was a child, his parents were in a car that exploded outside a Cape Town police station.

Sam was too young at the time to understand how he had been orphaned, and many years go by before he attempts to speak of his parents’ deaths. When he does—to his American fiancée—he comes up empty: “His parents had died of an accident. That was how everyone had explained it to him. He tried to remember who had first told him about his parents being dead—it must have been the police or Mrs. Gush, the old toothless woman—but there was a gap, as if the film of his memory had been cut and entire days of footage lost and burned up in a broken projector, bubbling yellow and black into whiteness.”

Much of the drama in “Absolution” arises from watching the two writers, Clare and Sam, obsessively revisiting the past in their attempts to make sense of, or at least make their peace with, their ruptured family lives. Like Clare, Sam turns, at one point, to T.R.C. records. He finds a news report on the amnesty hearing of a former MK commissar named Joe Speke, who helped plan the car bombing that killed his parents. Speke says that Sam’s father had packed the car with explosives himself, and was trained in the use of a remote-control detonator, but that something went wrong. The bomb went off prematurely, and Speke raises the possibility that the cell to which Sam’s parents belonged “had been infiltrated by the security services and the bomb sabotaged.” Sam considers this: Were his parents actually victims of the state? Would that be any better than an accident? It hardly matters to him. “What stupid people,” he says. “How much can they really have loved me if they were willing to risk my own well-being?”

After the death of Sam’s parents, none of their friends or close family wanted him. He was, for a while, taken in by an abusive relative, and during this period he was subjected to, witnessed, and committed terrible violence—so terrible that, even to his trusted fiancée, he will not speak of it. His secrecy contrasts with the T.R.C.’s goal of historical candor, which Sam regards with skepticism: “He had come from a country of accidents. He tried to understand what that meant. It seemed to mean that no one was ever responsible for anything if only you could tell the truth and most of all if you could say you were sorry. But he had not told the truth and he was not sorry.”

First novels are often quasi-autobiographical, and “Absolution” has many of the hallmarks: the excavation of family secrets, the coming-of-age story, a preoccupation with the writing life, and an intimate and assured evocation of a particular place. In Flanery’s novel, the place is not just South Africa, or even Cape Town writ large, but the microclimate of white literary bourgeois Cape Town (where the book has been well received). It comes as something of a surprise, then, to learn that Patrick Flanery is an American from the Midwest. He lives in England and has spent only short periods in South Africa. Yet “Absolution” is not simply a novel set in South Africa but what can only be described as a South African novel.

Some English reviewers of “Absolution” have compared Flanery to J. M. Coetzee. But although Flanery, too, takes a dark view of history, and resists offering false comfort, his is a more capacious darkness. He writes with eager curiosity to peel back the world, to look and listen closely, and to discover (without a hint of Coetzee’s contempt) the infinite complexity of other people’s lives. When Sam interviews Clare, he draws her out at length on the problems of working as a writer under the strictures of the apartheid regime.

“For a writer trying to work in the conditions of repression and censorship that existed in this country under the old government, every moment, waking and sleeping, was a form of intellectual and artistic molestation,” Clare says. She likens such a writer to an abused wife who has so internalized her batterer’s responses that she calibrates every word and action to anticipate and mollify him. Under apartheid, she says, “I chose to adapt, to keep my children and myself alive. At least that was the rationalization on which I built my career very specifically as a writer in this country in that historic moment.”

Clare never defended apartheid in her writing, and never espoused political beliefs she did not have. But she also never ran afoul of the Publications Control Board, because she avoided politics entirely. That was how she accommodated apartheid. “The censor infected my consciousness,” she tells Sam. “My work could never be accused of being documentary, perhaps because I knew what attitude the censor would take to the documentary form, to journalistic writing.” That was the form that was most likely to be found “undesirable.” (In a note at the back of the book, Flanery acknowledges that Clare’s discussion of censorship draws on Coetzee’s book of essays on the subject, “Giving Offense.”)

In her effort to avoid official disapproval, Clare strove to write books that would not win official approval, either. Her achievement was to have produced one work after another that the Publications Control Board labelled “Not undesirable”—a tepid, even ignominious brand, for which, however, she makes no apology. In her words: “I consciously wrote evasively, to remain in print? I did. I don’t consider it a crime. I consider it a means of survival.”

Sam is nearly as committed to what Clare calls the documentary, journalistic response to reality as she is at odds with it. Without him there to challenge and contradict her, a reader might overlook the evasions and liberties she allows herself as she fictionalizes her way through existence. Freedom from fact-checking may yield great literature, but for Clare the habits of art have infected the unwritten world of her daily life, where fiction becomes tantamount to lying: a means to avoid being held to account. So, while Sam writes her biography, Clare is writing a memoir—called “Absolution,” of course—in which she purports to reconstruct the final days of her lost daughter, Laura. The resulting book is almost pure invention. It is honest invention, insofar as Clare declares that it is fiction, but, she says, “I didn’t want to call it that. The publishers insisted. It’s easier to sell a novel than a weird hybrid of essay and fiction and family and national history, although it’s really the latter—both fiction and something that is not quite fiction but less than proper history or memoir.”

For Clare, fiction is the highest form of truth, and this makes it almost impossible to trust her. Long after the apartheid Publications Control Board was disbanded, Clare remains its pure product. When she looks back, and tallies her losses and her regrets, what she wants is absolution, which she realizes is no longer possible: “The dead cannot offer absolution.”

“What does calling it fiction allow Clare to do?” Sam asks at one point; and the question might be asked of Flanery. For all his socio-historical, documentary-style techniques, Flanery is, like Clare, a richly imaginative novelist, and the white bombers of Cape Town, whose brief careers haunt the novel, are his invention. There were hardly any white anti-apartheid guerrillas, much less white A.N.C. martyrs, in nineteen-eighties South Africa. So why rewrite such racially charged history in this fashion? One effect of Flanery’s sly editing of history is to complicate the novel’s relationship to the burden of apartheid. “Absolution” is a novel about a few white South Africans and how their lives were torn apart by the violence of a liberation struggle that they supported. By making their wounds self-inflicted, Flanery concentrates the drama and the arguments that surround it.

Had he been truer to historical reality, his book would have had to be all about race. But, by combining Clare’s instinct for the imaginative freedom of confabulation with Sam’s morally rigorous documentary approach, he allows himself to examine more deeply the particular dilemmas of white liberals, for whom the anti-apartheid cause was an effort to absolve themselves of an agonizing shame. They left open the question of how they would fit in under black majority rule, and in “Absolution” the failures of the post-apartheid era are reflected in the fact that, aside from Mrs. Sukwini, the widow who testifies in the T.R.C. transcript, only two black characters make enough of an appearance in the book to be given names and speaking parts.

In Sam and Clare’s world, blacks are primarily a menace. Most of the novel’s white characters live in homes that resemble fortified bunkers—Clare likens hers to a prison; it even has a lock inside the shower door—while the morning news tells of “another commuter bus being fired on by masked gunmen,” killing six and wounding dozens, even as a nurses’ strike has shut down hospitals, and health workers are “toyi-toying in operating theatres, dancing in protest around anesthetized patients.”

At one point, Clare goes on an anti-A.N.C. rant, telling her son, a lawyer who has little patience for her, “I am of the generation, as are you (more’s the pity), who will be able to say that they lived through two corrupt nationalist governments. The question is whether we will survive the second, some members of which see us as its unfinished business. . . . They are the ones who see all whites as parasites, and they are the analogues to those of the old regime who saw all blacks as terrorists or idlers.” To which he replies, “And now you do sound like a racist and a reactionary.”

Sam, too, has to admit that he doesn’t trust blacks, after his aunt is murdered during a home invasion: “He could not think of himself as a racist, he was sure he was not, but one had to be careful. Everyone must understand that one had to be careful.”

So much for reconciliation. Flanery depicts the insular, insecure society of his white South Africans without apology and without scolding. Is this what Sam’s parents blew themselves up for? In reality, today’s South Africa, for all its manifest disappointments and its unabated violence, is categorically less unjust and less unjustifiable than it was under apartheid, and Flanery knows better than to hoist his novel to any decisive moral or political conclusion. He brings the book’s many stories together at last, but there is no pretense that they are over. Leaving them unresolved may be the most hopeful ending possible, and when you finish “Absolution” there is one sure thing that stays with you: Patrick Flanery is an exceptionally gifted and intelligent novelist, and he is just getting started.
“[B]rilliantly realized”, “an astonishingly vivid and insightful tale [….]. Everything is here […] the very essence of what it is like to be at the tip of the African continent, to live in a country now much more integrated with the rest of world and yet still poignantly its own troubled place.” - Martin Rubin, Wall Street Journal

“Absolution is an impressive debut, questioning wrongs buried in the censorship of the Struggle”. “With probing finesses, Flanery opens up the question of guilt in two victims who may have been accessories to killers. The physical violence and Absolution’s landscapes tell of South Africa, but the characters’ interiority and the sophisticated sense of the past is wonderfully Henry James”. - Lyndall Gordon, The Literary Review

“Flanery has talent to spare, and he’s a talent to keep an eye on.” - Alexandra Fuller, New York Times Book Review

"Read Absolution. It’s up there with the best on the trauma that defines our country." - Sue Grant-Marshall, Business Day (South Africa)

“Absolution serves as proof, if any were needed, that a novel can be both unashamedly literary and compellingly readable”. - David Evans, Financial Times

"[A] mere handful of pages into Absolution it is evident that [Flanery] has got the measure of a part of South Africa’s soul and that [...] the book is set to become the definitive biography of a particularly fraught moment in the country’s history. [....] If Absolution is any indication of what we can expect of him, the world of fiction has gained a new, original voice that is going to demand our attention for a long time to come." - Lomin Saayman, Sunday Times (South Africa)

“Flanery is a talented prose stylist, and he deserves comparison to big names like Philip Roth and Margaret Atwood. This is a complex and ambitious novel in a grand tradition that dares to ask questions about censorship, memory, and political responsibility, all while maintaining a very human story of loss and forgiveness at its core. South Africa and its many familiar contradictions have gone underrepresented in American literature, but this impressive book will go a long way toward amending that deficit.” - Nicholas Mancusi and Malcolm Jones, The Daily Beast

“An inquiry into the ethical accountability of the writer and the ethical and epistemological problems of ‘life-writing’”; “the tidiness, the ounce-perfect freighting, of certain developments bring with them the benefits of Flanery’s historical intelligence. The novel builds up a glorious mosaic of forms”. - Leo Robson, The New Statesman

“This is a novel about the capacities and effects of storytelling, not in some abstruse, philosophical sense, but investigated with a compelling and dramatic immediacy. [….] The novel is rich and subtle in its textures and its evocation of characters, interactions and events. And it compels one to think, somewhat obliquely, about many of the questions that have preoccupied all South Africans and, particularly, post-apartheid novelists. [….] Flanery takes nothing for granted. Just as our scene is less familiar to him, his writing makes it somehow less familiar to us. His perspective on South Africa is less resigned, less exhausted—which, in truth, is a very welcome relief. [….] Flanery is an important interlocutor in post-apartheid literature. He has entered the conversation elegantly, insightfully and with flourish”. - Michael Titlestad, Mail & Guardian [South Africa]

A “compelling debut”; “A literary thriller whose writing is consistently first class”. - Adam O’Riordan, The Observer

“Flanery is already being compared to novelists like J.M. Coetzee and Margaret Atwood and, like those writers, he doesn’t shy from tackling big themes: collective guilt, for instance, or the complexity of forgiveness. But Flanery is also smart enough to know that the stories of individuals are what really matter – that the political is always and inevitably personal.” - Joel Yanofsky, Montreal Gazette

“Apartheid’s legacy lies at the heart of Patrick Flanery’s exceptional debut novel Absolution, which explores how the traumas of apartheid linger in South African society and asks difficult and often troubling questions about the relationship between power and truth. [....] Absolution deliberately refuses the consolations of resolution. Yet in a way that is the real achievement of this remarkable novel and its reminder of William Faulkner’s dictum, that the past is never dead, it is not even past.” - James Bradley, The Australian

“The wonder of this outstanding first novel is that Flanery weaves the stories together with assurance and craftsmanship, digging underneath many received ideas about the old and new South Africa”. - Kate Saunders, The Times

“a taut literary thriller”; “A very clever, beautifully written book”. - John Harding, The Daily Mail

“a gripping debut novel which examines the slipperiness of truth”. - Lucy Beresford, The Sunday Telegraph

“attempts to untangle the past and sort through the blurring of memory are masterfully handled by Flanery, who writes with a confidence and erudition that belie his young age”. - Elena Seymenliyska, on “highlights from a strong season for first novels”, Daily Telegraph

“an exceptionally intelligent, multi-layered novel encompassing politics, history, a gripping storyline and complex characters. It has absorbing depictions of grief, guilt, parenthood and sibling rivalry, and is beautifully written. The prose is lucid and strong, scenes of crime are full of suspense, and time and again phrases haunt with their imagery. [....] Absolution is an exceptional book.” – Leyla Sanai, The Independent

“Flanery’s writing is elegant and eloquent [...]. [H]e is an author to watch.” - Julie Trevelyan, Booklist

“Flanery has constructed a haunting labyrinth of mirrors, fact reflecting remembrance, lie reflecting evasion. Complex in theme, complex in narrative, this is a masterful literary exploration of the specter of conscience and the formidable cost of reconciliation.” - Kirkus starred review

“Absolution is a book of questions about what is right and who is pure. [....] One of the constant strengths of this novel is the way it faces the violence of everyday life [....]. With censorship now likely to make a comeback under the current government, what writers do becomes increasingly important. And a novel like Absolution is timely.” - Christopher Hope, The Guardian

“Patrick Flanery is an extraordinary new writer”. - GQ

"S’il y a un livre à ne pas rater ... c’est ce premier roman au suspense imparable, à la construction intelligente, et à la tension continue. Lisez-le." - Elle

"A riveting and beautifully constructed first novel by an iconoclastic American". - Les Inrockuptibles.

Advance Praise

“Patrick Flanery is an extraordinary new writer. Absolution is smart, moving and provocative, a rare combination of page-turner and literary triumph. More than a book about South Africa, this is a book about the hunt for the truth, a hunt that is as universal as it is essential. Utterly captivating, this is without a doubt one of the best books I’ve read in a long while.” - Steven Galloway, author of The Cellist of Sarajevo

“One rarely encounters such a confident first novel as Absolution. Patrick Flanery arrives on the scene wholly formed: a writer of superb self-confidence, depth of insight, and resolute clarity. Clare Wald, who occupies the white-hot center of this story, will stay with me. Flanery has a great deal to say about the art of biography, about narrative and its discontents, about the ways a blighted history infiltrates, infects, and transmogrifies the present. As the title suggests, the search for absolution is a human project of vast dimensions, never quite finished. This is a beautifully written piece of fiction, a major accomplishment.” - Jay Parini, author of The Last Station and The Passages of Herman Melville
  meadcl | Feb 21, 2016 |
Having only read one of her books and knowing next to nothing of her personal life, I wondered if Clare was a stand-in for Doris Lessing? It doesn’t matter if that’s true or not, the book is excellent. Some reviews complain that things are not as clear for the reader as they could be, but I didn’t mind as much as some. There are several narratives and timelines to follow and if you don’t pay attention, things can slip. There’s Clare in the present, bellowing over having to meet with Sam, her (chosen) biographer, to answer tedious questions (why won’t he ask the right ones?). There’s Sam’s current situation, staying with college friend, Greg, while he waits for his wife, Sarah, to join him in Johannesburg. There’s also Sam’s past; when he was an abandoned/orphaned child and met Laura, Clare’s estranged daughter, now missing and presumed dead for 2 decades. And finally we have a section written by Clare to Laura in which she confesses her past sins and speculates on what Laura’s final notebooks really mean.

There is such deliberation in the way this story is told that it’s easy to trust the author. Even when things were obscure, I felt confident that Flanery would get me satisfaction in the end. For example, Laura’s notebooks aren’t presented whole, but instead are interpreted by Clare (and I don’t even think she quotes her even once). Since we never get to read Laura first hand, we have to wonder how much of what’s in the notebooks is true and how much is Clare’s fantasies about how virtuous her daughter was and by extension, her cause; overturning the government. Which leads me to another character; South Africa during the incredibly corrupt apartheid government. According to his bio, Flanery has never lived there and even if he did, he’s too young to have been an adult then. The sense of place and time is so thorough and realistic that I’d never have bet an author with no direct experience could have written it. Fantastic and very scary, not just for the blacks in that situation (although it was far, far worse), but for everyone. The menace is palpable. The whole “investigation” into Clare’s home invasion/break in was insane and reminds me that I really need to read Kafka.

And if that’s not enough, the writing is fabulous. Normally when I read a thriller or similar novel, I don’t subvocalize. Never do. I am a sight reader and a very fast one, but with books like this I do subvocalize. It’s a deliberate choice I make and the extra time it takes to read is worth it. Sam and Clare have different voices and I just love how total that was. For example, Clare uses the word cohere quite a bit, but I didn’t notice Sam do it once, which he wouldn’t. Keeping that straight is one of those signs you are in good hands.

“and a voice like curdled cream…” p. 51 (describing a real estate agent)

“The light carried the thick odor of wood smoke and returned to you earlier fires on the beaches of childhood holidays, to the far for funerals and weddings, numberless ceremonies of the everyday and the extraordinary.” p. 144 (Clare imposing her desires onto Laura’s history)

“Clare looked for a smile but Mark was as solemn as if preparing for the judicial chamber; if there was humor or empathy there, another part of him sat holding down the cage that contained them.” p. 253 (Mark is Clare’s son who has just heard Clare’s big secret about the death of her sister)

“You decided that day to accept whatever invitation was extended, to infiltrate yourself into her life, finding a way to return the sting of her transgressions.” p. 264 (Clare again supposing, this time how Laura got involved with her anti-apartheid cell)

With all that said, I have little doubt that Flanery will once again end up on my top five books list for 2016. ( )
1 vote Bookmarque | Jan 18, 2016 |
This review was written for LibraryThing Early Reviewers.
"Dostoevsky says that everyone remembers things he would only confide to his friends, and other things he would only reveal to himself...But there are other things which a man is afraid to tell even to himself." In Absolution a first novel about memory and guilt and censorship, the author has produced a stunning, compelling tale of an aging South African author, Clare, and her biographer, Sam, told in multiple points of view. Absolution brought the country and its tragic past to life as much as anything I've read by classic authors such asCOETZEE JOHN M. and Nadine Gordimer. The characters were well-drawn and the plot moved forward sometimes at rapid pace as I flipped ahead, unable to await the resolution of an incident, the clues to a possible future. The writing is very good and Clare's voice rings true. I closed the book with satisfaction that reading this book was time well spent and sparked my interest in learning more about the country and people of South Africa (rueing a missed travel opportunity a few years ago). The author looms large on my radar for future works. He is a writer to watch. ( )
  featherbooks | Apr 30, 2013 |
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Complex in theme, complex in narrative, this is a masterful literary exploration of the specter of conscience and the formidable cost of reconciliation.
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A renowned, reclusive grande dame of South African literature, Clare Wald has surprised everyone by choosing an unknown, Sam Leroux, to be her official biographer - allowing him into her home to interrogate her and her work. Sam has his own reasons for accepting the position; he has followed Clare's career obsessively his whole life, for motives known only to him. Throughout their meetings neither Clare nor Sam acknowledges the deeply personal past that links them, but as their relationship unfolds, each begins to realize that the other knows more than he or she has let on. The key lies with Clare's daughter, Laura, an active member of the anti-apartheid movement, who disappeared without a trace twenty years earlier.

Set in contemporary South Africa, Absolution is a stunningly crafted story. Shifting through time and place, Patrick Flanery brilliantly weaves together four different perspectives - Sam's version of the past, Clare's version of the past, Clare's imagination of Laura's life, and a fourth thread revealing what might have really happened - to offer powerful insights into the elusive nature of truth, memory and interpretation.
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In modern-day South Africa, Clare Walde tells the story of her sister's death and the disappearance of her daughter during apartheid twenty years earlier.

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