This is a story of lives lived in ways which give cause for regret. This is becoming a genre. Ian McEwan talked about Atonement. 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 The Sense of an Ending? 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.