BY LARA BUXBAUM
Patrick Flanery’s Absolution was critically lauded on publication last year. With the appearance of Fallen Land, Flanery proves his debut was no fluke. In his second novel, Flanery turns his eyes from apartheid-era complicity and security paranoia in contemporary South Africa to the insidious effects of the expanding carceral network in the heartland of America.
Although the narrative of Fallen Land is confined to a small geographic area and centres on a domestic tragedy, its scope is epic: a gothic portrait of America after the market crash. This is not the land of “hope and glory”, but a depleted landscape of disappointment and felled dreams.
Near the start of the novel, Louise Washington visits Paul Krovik, a property developer, in prison. The nature of his crime remains mysterious. And so the reader begins the vertiginous descent to the dark heart of the novel, transfixed with increasing unease, as the events of the past are slowly revealed. Washington’s grandparents were the children of freed slaves and inherited the farm they worked on as tenants. The land was therefore a symbol of freedom and of triumph over a history of dispossession. However, deep in debt, Washington is compelled to sell her family’s “promised land” to the ambitious Krovik. Krovik, too, falls into bankruptcy, victim of the market and his insistence on self-reliance – that founding American philosophy, as articulated by Emerson, which is rendered with stark and terrifying consequences.
Krovik dreamt of creating a utopian community of people who “shared his belief that the past was a better place”, a belief that elides and erases the history of slavery, violence and segregation. Instead, he created “something closer to a landscape of nightmare”. Oblivious of this, the Noailles family buy Krovik’s foreclosed “Gothic revival” house. While there is no mad woman in the attic, there is an obsessive survivalist hidden in the basement: Krovik has found refuge in the hidden bunker of his house, plotting his revenge on his dispossessors.
Nathaniel Noailles has relocated from Boston, with his wife and son, to take up the position of “National Director of Offender Rehabilitation” at a multinational security corporation. At first, wary of his company’s plans, Nathaniel is soon seduced: “It has the quality of genius: the criminal class transformed by legal means into the largest body of slave labour since the great emancipation”.
Only their young son, Copley Noailles, is aware of the ominous presence in the house, and the disbelief with which his pronouncement is greeted begins the family’s unravelling. Copley’s tragic loss of innocence and betrayal are central to the novel, and his perspective, when revealed, is devastating.
While Krovik’s houses are flawed failures, there is nothing out of scale in Flanery’s book, as the author reveals himself to be a master craftsman. This tautly plotted novel is written with astonishing assurance, evidence of a writer employing every tool available to perfectly construct this compelling fictional world.
This is a book I recommend you clear your schedule for. It is perhaps not a beach read, unless you intend to suddenly tear your eyes from the page, hours later, sunburnt and anxious, unsure of your surroundings (which might suddenly look more menacing), or of how much time has elapsed.
Fallen Land is published by Atlantic Books, R240.