South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission was named after two virtues that characters long for in Patrick Flanery’s debut novel, Absolution. It would appear, however, that his characters can either have one or the other but not both.
The novel begins when a professor returns to post-apartheid South Africa to interview a reclusive novelist for a biography. (Aside from being a prize-winning, progressive novelist of a certain era, it becomes clear there are few similarities between Clare Wald and real-life Nobel Prize-winner Nadine Gordimer.) Neither Sam Leroux nor Wald will tell the other how their lives have intersected in the past, and neither person is asking the questions they really want answered.
Wald’s daughter, who became involved with militant activists in the 1980s, disappeared 20 years before the novel begins, encountering the child Sam on her last flight. How Sam’s and Clare’s stories are intertwined is teased out over interviews, memories, excerpts from Truth and Reconciliation transcripts, and Clare’s last novel, titled “Absolution.”
Flanery presents different versions of the same events, and readers will need to pay close attention if they want to find out what really happened. As the story unfolds, other murders and other crimes are disclosed, and everyone’s motivations are suspect. The two writers circle one another, obsessively combing the past for clues to the destruction of their family members and guarding their own secrets.
“Accidents were always happening,” Sam thinks. “He had come from a country of accidents. He tried to understand what this 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.”
Flanery, an American living in London, seems quite adept at describing the conditions in modern South Africa for those of a certain race and class. For a portrayal of the black South African experience in the years before and after apartheid, you’d need to find a different novel.
After resisting giving up the Cape Town home where her children grew up, a home invasion changes Clare’s mind. Glass walls, at this point in the country’s history, are considered the height of personal irresponsibility. She moves into a luxury fortress where, like many wealthy, white South Africans, she lives under virtual house arrest, complete with metal shutters, high, electrified walls, guard dogs, and panic buttons in every room.
An irritable recluse, she spends her days longing for her daughter and considering her own past deeds. She assumes Laura’s dead, and imagines horrors. She examines T.R.C transcripts, believing that any unsolved bombing could be the work of her daughter.
“What she did, what I assume she did, was both too great and selfless as well as too dishonorable and horrific to be called heroic,” Wald tells her son. Except that, as a reader learns, what Wald assumes Laura did may not be what really occurred.
Part detective story, part literary examination of a society in flux, “Absolution” ends with an unsettled feeling of uncertainty that feels just right for both its protagonists and their country.