Patrick Flanery’s debut novel, Absolution
, follows two main characters, world-renowned author Clare Wald, and her biographer, Sam Leroux. The novel takes place in South Africa around 1994, reflecting on the country's deeply rooted racism, and Clare's own guilt about her involvement, or lack thereof, in the nation's recently acquired racial equity. As Clare reveals her own secrets, Sam finds himself grappling with his own past, much of which he wishes would not come floating to the surface.
The novel begins with a violent introduction to Clare's life. Clare Wald lives quite peacefully in her home in Cape Town, South Africa, working as a full-time novelist and critic. However, her peace is broken one night when a gang of men breaks into her home. Clare assumes they want her money or to take her hostage, but the men want a piece of Clare's past – one she isn't willing to give up.
Soon afterward, Sam Leroux appears on the scene. A young academic and South African native, Sam has spent the last few years living abroad. He has been hired to write Clare's biography
– the author has become increasingly reclusive in her old age, and Sam has taken it upon himself to uncover her secrets, weaseling his way into her past. However, Clare is a novelist, a person who makes up stories for a living, and Sam soon finds himself battling against the old woman for the truth. While she makes up unreliable stories about the years before and after Apartheid, it becomes increasingly clear that Sam has his own stories to hide.
Clare is haunted by a number of ghosts from her past. The most prominent, perhaps, is her father, one of a few good judges who served during the years of Apartheid. Though liberal herself, Clare feels haunted by the ghost of her father's legacy. His wig appears repeatedly in strange and incongruous places, as if haunting her, demanding she do better. Each time she finds the wig again, Clare is reminded of all the ways she failed.
Clare tells the story of her daughter, Laura, who died tragically while backing violent resistance measures against the old regime. Clare's sister was also murdered for her politics, though she was fighting for the other team. Each time Clare thinks of them, she wonders about the price of violent resistance and the senselessness of their deaths. She feels that she is somehow to blame for their tragic ends.
As Sam asks his difficult questions, Clare writes a book of her own, entitled Absolution
, about the many ways she failed and betrayed those she loved during those years of political tumult. The novel and Sam's probing questions bring up challenging subjects, such as the legitimacy of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which was meant to try hate crimes committed on both sides, provide amnesty where necessary, and bring justice to victims. As Sam digs deeper into Clare's history, forcing Clare to reconcile her crimes to herself, both Sam and Clare refuse to look deeper into the real reason behind Sam's questioning – the connection that ties the two together, which neither is willing to stomach.
The novel ties together stories of the personal and the political, while confronting the role that authors and their literary works played in opposing Apartheid and backing leftist and liberal regimes that eventually brought something resembling freedom for blacks to South Africa.
Patrick Flanery is an American author and academic from Omaha, Nebraska. Absolution
was his first novel, and he has written two others, Fallen Land
and I Am No One.
He has received much acclaim for his work and multiple writing fellowships. His non-fiction work has appeared in The Los Angeles Times, Newsweek,
and The Guardian
, among other papers. He has taught English and Creative Writing in London and currently teaches at the Queen Mary University of London.