Absolution by Patrick Flanery

book cover of Absolution

So evidently, that moratorium on reading books with male academic protagonists isn’t going so well. I have heard of the principle of “write what you know”, but this is really boring and I think male academics need to get some imagination.

The book itself is an alright read; it’s basically Atonement in South Africa, though. At least, from what I can recall of that book they have a lot in common. The title, obviously. The concentration on wealthy white people. (Although to be fair to McEwan, Atonement is the book of his I remember being less obsessed with wealthy white people than usual. At least, I don’t remember getting frustrated by how much I didn’t care about any of his eye-rolling self-absorbed walking moneybags the way I did with his other books…)

This novel centres on an elderly white South African author, Clare Wald, and her biographer Sam Leroux – also a white South African, but having been living in New York for a very long time. Their relationship goes back a long way before that, but to explain it would spoil the plot. It’s a novel about history, truth, memory… but also a novel where the only black characters are domestic workers, thieves, and obnoxious police officers, which I found more than a little problematic. I mean sure, from what I’ve heard, white South Africans prefer to live in isolated communities and see as little of people of colour as possible (except as servants), and my complaint isn’t that Flanery should have written white South Africans to be more inclusive than they really are. It’s more that I don’t understand how he expects me to care about anyone in this novel. I find it really hard to sympathise with these characters with more money than they know what to do with and domestic staff to do their chores. I found it especially hard to sympathise with Clare Wald feeling so guilty about having tipped off leftist militants as to the whereabouts of her National Party brother-in-law and sister, probably enabling their assassination. She did good! What the hell is she so upset about? Jeez…

There are some other aspects of the plot I didn’t find very satisfying – the eventual explanation of what happened to Laura, Clare’s daughter, for example. I didn’t feel that what Lionel and Timothy had to say about her constituted an authoritative answer, and yet there was no more explanation after that, so I guess it was so supposed to be, inasmuch as anything was supposed to be? But I struggled to re-analyse all those snippets from her diaries and such as having been written by a fanatical supporter of the regime. You could describe this novel as a mystery novel, with Laura’s fate being the matter under investigation, except that the denouement is hearsay, untrustworthy and unclear. I get that that happens a lot in real life, that real mysteries are never explained. But I don’t read mystery novels to get the kind of lack of answers I can get in real life.

Despite all of this, I kind of enjoyed the novel, though. Lacking an emotional investment in any of the characters, I took it as a mystery and ended up disappointed, but until the disappointment it was hard to put down. The differing versions of the same events were intriguing. I wanted to get to the ’truth’. Alas…


a cartoony avatar of Jessica Smith is a socialist and a feminist who loves animals, books, gaming, and cooking; she’s also interested in linguistics, history, technology and society.