In the beginning it seems simple enough. Sam Leroux, a writer and academic, comes to the Cape Town home of aging South African writer Clare Wald, who has reluctantly agreed to allow him to write her biography. Yet even in the opening chapters of Patrick Flanery's Absolution there are hints that there is more between these two than either of them is ready to admit.
The story advances in fits and starts, as the chapter narratives alternate points of view. It is clear when the narrative voice belongs to Sam or Clare, but at times other, conflicting, accounts appear, and it's only as the book progresses (accompanied by much flipping pages backwards on my part), that the source of each voice becomes clear.
And what Sam and Clare are describing is incredibly powerful and unsettling. The story is set in present day South Africa, but the violence and terror of apartheid has saturated both their lives. I was familiar with only the broad strokes of this era of South Africa's history, so I found Flanery's descriptions of the horrific events and the oppressive atmosphere disturbing and riveting. Both Clare and Sam keep revisiting pieces of their pasts, trying make sense of history and of their personal lives, haunted by guilt.
Flanery's does not make excuses for his characters but he does not judge them. He does makes it clear how difficult it can be to receive absolution.