We’ve been living in South Africa for three and a half years. We’d been living in London up until that point, most latterly in that part of London where you can spend a morning in a coffee shop and hear only South African accents. Before moving we’d made a few South African friends, visited the country twice (one on holiday, once for job interview) and tried to learn as much as we could – watching, listening, talking, asking, reading. It’s been a good move for us. We love living here – the South Africa we found and live in is not the one we’d heard about from the UK media and (some) South African expats. We do miss the freedom to walk streets safely at night; neither do we live in fear. We live in an area of Cape Town some had told us was dangerous. The truth is that it’s safer than some parts of London. We’ve never really felt in any danger – not even driving into the townships. We are sensible and take appropriate precautions; but we also choose not to live in fear.
It’s not easy to move countries, though. There’s the issues you’d have anywhere – losing your extended support network of friends, missing the familiar you’ve had all your life, and not realising you don’t know how to post a letter until you need to do so. All these are destabilising in different ways. The hardest things in South Africa are intangible. Only a fool would pretend London is free of prejudice, but equally diversity is a reasonably accepted and celebrated fact of life. It’s the honest truth to say that in London I just don’t notice skin colour. Cut to a small group of fellow clergy a year ago in Cape Town, and one man is saying to me ‘Dave, what do you see when you look at me?’. ‘I see [his name]’, I said. That was true. That was who I saw. He didn’t believe me. After ten minutes of trying to explain to him that the first thing I see when I look at a person isn’t skin colour, we gave up. It was too big a cultural gap for us both to cross.
It would be easy to say that’s something he needs to be healed of. In some senses, maybe – but it’s as much for me to be healed and changed. I need to learn what it’s like for people of all ethnicities to live in a context where the colour of skin was the primary mode of identification. The new South Africa is years old now, people are coming of voting age who only know what it’s like to live in freedom. Still the ripples of apartheid spread; poverty traps, issues of race and corruption and justice inflame. As my friend Sharlene, a leading South African social scientist, puts it in one of her books [paraphrase] “Apartheid is like a large worm that has laid many eggs. Even though the worm is long dead, the eggs are still hatching” (‘Ikasi: The Moral Ecology Of South Africa’s Township Youth’ by Sharlene Swartz). It’s this, and issues around it, that make South Africa one of the most challenging contexts in the world to work in – according to an aid worker I know of who has worked in post-genocide Rwanda. You’re navigating a minefield with no map and the mines are constantly shifting.
All of which is a convoluted way in to talk about a novel I’ve just finished reading. Absolution by Patrick Flanery is a debut novel that arrived last year on a wave of glowing reviews and awards nominations. It presents us with a series of interlocking and unraveling stories in South Africa: Sam, a writer researching a biography and simultaneously seeking resolution over his dead parents and murdered childhood carer; Clare, a novelist, is the subject of Sam’s biography, recovering from the trauma of a home invasion and seeking forgiveness for betraying her sister and her fractured relationship with her daughter. There’s something between author and subject, of which we learn in slowly revealed moments as stories are told and revisited. It’s a cunningly told tale – told from different perspectives and shifting back and forth in time. We’re told what characters think is true, but we’re never quite sure what truth is. That and the writing is beautiful – images are spun with clarity and haunting perception. It’s clear and readable on a plane – but it’s never simplistic or dull. It’s a transcendent and magnificent.
It also captures the endless decisions of daily South African life – is it safe with the back door open on a hot day? How much, how often – if at all – should I give to those calling at the door for money? Where are the panic buttons? Is what fear leads me to see true? Why must I keep seeing skin colour before the person – and yet feel like I have no choice? Reading it felt like gazing at a beautifully rendered painting of all the difficult questions I’ve been asked or asked myself over the last three and a half years.
A brilliant novel from a new South African novelist, I thought. Or at least until I decided to find out a little more about the author. He’s an American living in Britain who’s visited South Africa. A couple of times. Which given the depth of insight into South African life – the layers of truth and half-truth, the quarrels of fear and freedom, a recent past of censorship and activism and betrayal, and what it’s like to live in that and all that entails – is frankly staggering. Either the author’s biography is another layer of deception and truth, or he’s a profoundly gifted writer of rare insight, courage and compassion. Given that this is a book which puts into words of heartbreaking beauty parts of your soul you hope don’t exist, I’m guessing it’s the later.
I rated this book 5/5 on goodreads.com.