By Patrick Flanery
Riverhead Books (Penguin), 2012
Sam Leroux, a white South African academic living in New York City, is invited to write the biography of Clare Dane, an eminent white South African novelist. Sam returns to South Africa to interview and work with Clare in the Western Cape before moving to Johannesburg with his American journalist wife to live. From the first page of the book it is revealed that the Clare and Sam have a connected history, but neither discusses their past connection as the stories of their lives unfold.
Told in four voices the book captures Sam’s present story, both of their histories and Clare’s fictional world via chapters titled, Absolution. Flanery, an American now living in the UK, does a great job capturing the precarious social situation of contemporary wealthy white South Africans who live in large homes with plenty of help and yet exist behind walls and carry panic buttons when they go out. He also provides a brief look into the anti-apartheid movement.
Absolution is one of the best books I read this year. It is ambitious, thought-provoking and very real. It is also a book that unfolds as you read it. As details are revealed about the characters’ present and past lives, the connections between Clare and Sam twist and turn. This book is as much about storytelling as it is about the story itself and I liked how seamlessly Flanery did that. He kept me turning the pages, eager to put the story together and learn the “true” histories of Clare and Sam. I don’t want to give much more of the story away as the reward of reading this book is to read it without knowing where it will take you.
Nominated for many book prizes this year, Flanery is a remarkable author.