Monday, 12 August 2013

'Don't take my story or my words'

Absolution asks similar questions to a number of novels I've read recently; how do we construct and edit our narratives about ourselves and the people we know, and how far can we ever know the truth about a single individual or a single incident? While these questions remain fascinating, I think I'm becoming a little impatient with so many novelists retreading similar ground. Nevertheless, Patrick Flanery's take on these themes is impressive; as in Fallen Land, he handles a number of disparate narratives that gradually converge into a whole, and carefully retraces the gaps, flaws and contradictions in these stories. (I was glad that I had read Fallen Land, his second novel, before this, his debut; they share similar concerns with security and surveillance, but the theme is much more developed in Fallen Land, which is a more mature work, on the whole. Reading that book first helped me to appreciate the universality of the themes he explores in this novel; as one character comments, South Africa and the USA mirror each other).

Clare Wald is an acclaimed South African novelist who has at last allowed a young academic, Sam, to write her biography. Clare's interviews are stilted and uninformative, but it is through her first-person narrative and through the sections of the quasi-fictional memoir she is writing, Absolution, that we learn her true concerns; her guilt over the death of her sister Nora and how deeply she is haunted by not knowing what happened to her daughter Laura, an anti-apartheid activist who disappeared some years ago. Sam's narrative is also revealing; we realise that his involvement with Clare and Laura goes much deeper than we initially believed, as he came into contact with them first as a small child. Clare and Sam's present-day life in South Africa reveals Flanery's pessimism about how much the country has really changed; as Sam's friend, Gary, comments, he gives money continuously to his nanny, gardener, car guards, domestic, and 'the old man who comes to my front gate' because 'It can never be too much because they need it more than you... Just like if your hire car gets stolen or somebody takes the radio or the hubcaps - you have to tell yourself, whoever took it needs it more.' However, Gary is also careful about security, warning Sam never to answer the gate to a (black) delivery man, but to take the food through the letterbox, and his philanthropy is a form of assuaging his conscience about the continuing structural inequalities and separations in South African society. Clare, too, comes under pressure to amp up her security system, with the police insinuating that she must somehow sympathise with criminals if she doesn't take measures like installing panic buttons with an instant armed guard response against 'house invasions', something which seems unique to South Africa but is of course a device Flanery uses again in the US-set Fallen Land.

Absolution, however, is primarily not about South African society - its limited, white-only perspectives indicate that - but about identity, and how telling wrong or distorted stories affects what we do. Clare is seeking absolution for the part she believes she played in her sister's death, but when she asserts that Nora made her childhood 'a misery', the one incident she continually recounts is when Nora ruined her birthday cake by putting dog excrement in it, then tried to claim that Clare had done it herself. Clare stresses that it is the lying that was the worst thing about this incident, rather than Nora's jealousy over the cake, but the extent to which this one, very particular crime seems to sum up her whole account of her sister indicates how far Nora's memory has become distorted as Clare tries to justify her actions. Sam and Clare both continually rewrite motive and theme in their retellings of their own lives throughout the course of this novel, and so it's ironic, but completely fitting, that the most satisfying thread in this web is Clare's re-enactment of the last weeks or months of Laura's life. This is a story that Laura cannot tell herself, and we later find out that much of it is inaccurate, but because Clare controls it, it has far greater narrative drive and coherence. The most memorable image in the book is probably Laura lying in an iron cage in the sun waiting to drown, thinking of her childhood swimsuit, and yet we know that this is simply a possibility Clare has invented - there's no reason to think it really happened.

Clare's domination of the narrative persists into the very last 'excerpt' from her memoir, where she has a long conversation with her surviving child, Mark. At the end, Mark says to her, 'I beg of you, please, not to put any of this into one of your books. What we've said to each other is just for you and me. It's not for other people to read... Don't take my story or my words. These are my words.' As this is supposed to be a published work, the reader is left with a conundrum; either Clare has violated her promise to Mark or this is a part of Absolution that is entirely false. It is Flanery's clever exploration of the shifting boundaries between fiction and fact in Clare's writing that makes Absolution - the novel, rather than the memoir - interesting. In some ways, this is reminiscent of Ian McEwan's Sweet Tooth; but unlike McEwan, he gives the reader enough clues to be able to puzzle away at these boundaries for themselves, and so has produced a novel that will certainly be worth re-reading.

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