It’s not actually easy to describe this book. Is it a mystery? A literary novel? Or historical fiction? I suppose the answer is: a little bit of all.
Most of all, it’s a book about South Africa, both present and past, interweaving the story of what might have happened to Laura, a young South African anti-apartheid activist 20 years ago, with how much of that story her mother, Clare, remembers and is willing to share with her biographer, Sam. Clare is a well-known and aging novelist, who I think is drawn to resemble Nadine Gordimer. She has almost completely withdrawn from public life and battles with her past and how she might have been complicit in certain events. She has suffered not only the loss of Laura but also her own sister who was brutally murdered together with her husband. Sam – who has spent many years in the United States and has only recently returned to South Africa – has the task of writing her life story, and for this purpose he questions her about the past in a series of interviews conducted at her secluded house. But it turns out that Sam himself played a part in Clare’s past as well, and neither of them is sure of the other’s motives during their repeated interviews. Did Clare hire Sam precisely because she knew who he was, or was it only Sam who sought out the assignment to find closure about the horrific events of his childhood? Does Clare truly not know what happened to Laura, or is she deliberately distorting the past so as to feel less guilty?
I liked the book, the many layers of different stories or rather versions of the same story, the reflection on truth and lies and the tricky way memory cannot always distinguish between the two. You are immediately roped in with the setting, the characters, and a few versions of the mystery. The narrative style reminds me a little of that South American magic realism, in that you’re sometimes not sure as a reader whether something actually happened or not, whether it is just imagined, or the memory of someone. It makes you feel as if there’s a veil over the story, a certain mist, that keeps you from seeing everything fully.
I have to say, however, that I liked the beginning of the book better than the end. We are plunged into the story with the arrival of Sam in the present time in or near Cape Town to set out on his biography project. Seeing South Africa through his eyes, someone who hasn’t lived there many years, was a pleasure to me, as it reminded me of the ways I first saw it upon arrival. We are then introduced to Clare and her secluded life, partly a result of her having been robbed at her former residence and reluctantly moving to a secure estate behind layers of walls and security. From Clare we also get a first glimpse at the story of Laura – her daughter – and what might have happened to her, or what Clare remembers or speculates has happened to her. The rest of the book, however, dragged on a bit for me. I feel like most of the plot is actually revealed in the first part of the book, and the rest just delves deeper into it but doesn’t tell you anything new. I know what the author is trying to do – illuminate what a tricky beast memory can be, and how the same event sounds very different as remembered by different people (and also different as the same person finally confronts his or her memories of it) but I still couldn’t help but feel that I was let down towards the end, as there wasn’t anything new I learned, yet was sort of waiting for throughout.
Still, Absolution is a good read about apartheid South Africa and the ongoing struggles of coming to terms with it. It delves into the issue of censorship and self-censorship in the writing community, the pros and cons of outright rebellion or quiet, behind-the-scenes work within the system. There is also one passage with a transcript of several fictional interviews conducted by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission which I found very powerful. Since I didn’t live in South Africa during those times, I was never aware of the exact nature of the work of that commission, and it is very revealing to glimpse how it was conducted and why it was (and has been) so difficult to come to terms with the past.