I Am No One by Patrick Flanery

Paranoia doesn’t mean they’re not out to get you…

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i am no oneJeremy O’Keefe has returned to New York after spending a decade teaching at Oxford University. He’s glad to be back, especially since it means he’s able to spend time with his daughter, now grown and married. But a series of odd events begin to make him feel he’s under some kind of surveillance, though he doesn’t know by whom or why. Unless he’s imagining it all…

Flanery has chosen a very different voice for the first-person narrator of this book, and he sustains it beautifully. Almost stream of consciousness at times, Jeremy uses long run-on sentences, full of digressions and asides, but so skilfully constructed they always make it back to where they began without losing the reader along the way. Jeremy is unreliable, not so much – or perhaps not only – because he is trying to mislead the reader, but because he doesn’t really want to face up to his own weaknesses. But as he rambles on, frequently repeating himself and going over the same bits of his life again and again, each time the story he tells contains subtle changes, so that we gradually get to understand him better and, despite him, begin to be able to see between the gaps and put the true story together ourselves.

A feeling of unease develops from the beginning, when Jeremy waits for a student with whom he has arranged a meeting. She doesn’t turn up, and Jeremy later finds an e-mail exchange he apparently had with her postponing the meeting – an exchange of which he has no memory. When he recounts this incident to his daughter, he is surprised at how ready she is to consider that the problem lies in Jeremy’s own mental state. But paranoia does seem to be a feature of Jeremy’s personality, as does fear. His academic focus is on post-war surveillance methods, particularly in East Germany, and he also runs courses on how surveillance and voyeurism are portrayed in films. Perhaps all this is feeding into how he’s interpreting events. Certainly some of his suspicions about people seem little more than paranoia, but some of the odd things that happen (if we can trust his account of them) suggest there’s more to it than that. The uncertainty is brilliantly done and creates an atmosphere of growing tension as the story slowly unfolds.

Patrick Flanery zoomed onto my must-read list with his first novel Absolution and consolidated his position as one of my favourites with Fallen Land, a book that I presumptuously declared should be a contender for the title of Great American Novel for the 2000s. So my expectations for this one were high – probably too high. And in truth it didn’t quite meet those expectations. However, having given myself some time to mull it over before writing this review, I’ve concluded that it’s primarily the comparison with his previous books that has left me a little disappointed with this one.

Patrick Flanery (source:patrickflanery.com)
Patrick Flanery
(source:patrickflanery.com)

It’s difficult to explain without spoilers why I felt a little let down by how the story played out, so I’ll have to be pretty oblique here – sorry! There are two main questions in the book – is Jeremy under surveillance, and if so, why? When the answers become clear, it also becomes obvious that Jeremy must have known certain things all along, which makes a bit of a nonsense of all the passages where the reader watched him puzzle over them. As an intelligent man, whether paranoid or mentally stable or not, he could not have known what he knew and yet not have understood the implications. So when all became clear, I found that credibility nosedived. However…

… as I thought about it more, I realised that Flanery had done something that I think in retrospect is rather clever, though I’m not entirely sure whether it was intentional. (And, clever or not, intentional or not, it doesn’t remove the basic credibility problem.) The whole book reads as if it’s heading in the direction of criticism of our surveillance society – of those hard-won freedoms we have cheerfully and perhaps short-sightedly given up in the aftermath of the horrific terrorist episodes of the last couple of decades. This preconception of the ‘message’ of the book meant that, when it ended, my initial reaction was to say Flanery had failed to make his point. But when I thought more about it, I realised that he could have done that facile thing – given us the cliché of the blameless individual hounded by an over-powerful state – and we could all have tut-tutted merrily along in our liberal disapproval. But Flanery didn’t – instead he gave us something that left the moral stance much less clear; something that made me realise how far my own opinions have shifted in response to the repeated horrors of recent years. That yes, I do want to shelter behind state security services and, yes, I am willing to give up things I would once have considered sacrosanct in return for security. And that left me ruminating…

So, in the end, the depiction of Jeremy’s descent into paranoia and fear make it a tense read, and Flanery’s excellent use of language and voice make it an enjoyable one. And, although I don’t think this book works quite as well as his previous ones, it is still thought-provoking, raising important questions about security, surveillance and freedom in this new world we inhabit.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Atlantic Books.

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Publication Day! Fallen Land by Patrick Flanery

State of the Union…

A stunning multi-layered book that works as both a fine slow-burning psychological thriller and more deeply as a metaphor for the troubled American psyche in the post-9/11, post economic collapse world. Great language, great characterisation, great story – not just the book of the year but quite possibly the book of the decade. Really, what more could you want?

My full review is hiding behind this link 🙂

fallen land

Absolution by Patrick Flanery

Wonderfully complex and beautifully written…

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absolutionI noticed last night that the Kindle version of Absolution is currently available for £0.99 ($1.51 in US) so that seemed like a good prompt to post my review. This was the winner of the FictionFan Book of 2012 (a prestigious award – the prize being that I guarantee to read the author’s next book!) and although it was critically acclaimed it never got the readership I believe it deserves. Flanery’s new one, Fallen Land, is due out on 1st May and, having been lucky enough to get an advance copy from the publishers, I was blown away by it – certainly the best book I’ve read this decade. (For my review click here.)

So here’s my original review of Absolution – all this for 99p…and still time to read it before the new one comes out!

This wonderfully written book is so complex it’s hard to give a full flavour of it in a short review. As Clare Wald, famous South African novelist, gives a series of interviews to her biographer, Sam Leroux, she begins a journey through her memories, re-assessing the part she has played in the lives of those around her. She is also writing an autobiographical fiction and we see all the different threads as we, like Clare, try to find the truth amidst the invention.

Clare’s story, and Sam’s, is told against the background of the role and position of the white South Africans during and after the struggle against apartheid. It is a search for truth that shows how memories are distorted and conflicting, how it is hard to distinguish whether motives are personal or political. The fear felt by the white community, whether real or exaggerated, pulses through the book allowing the author to examine questions of suspicion and trust.

As Clare and Sam search for their own redemption, the author has them echo the theme of the Truth and Reconciliation hearings designed to allow South Africa to face its past and look forward to its future. With the white South African regime having been one of the ogres of my youth, I was amazed at the way the author made me feel both sympathy and empathy for the white people caught up in these events. But this book isn’t just about South Africa – the emotions and motivations of these characters are universal.

This is a wonderful book, all the more remarkable since it is the author’s first. Assured, beautifully written and shocking in parts, it has left me with images that will stay with me for a long time. Sorrowful, filled with guilt and cruelty but echoing with hope, much like South Africa itself – in my opinion, this will be in the running for best book of 2012. Highly recommended.

Patrick Flanery(source:patrickflanery.com)
Patrick Flanery
(source:patrickflanery.com)

If you do read it, or if you already have, I’d love to hear what you think of it.

NB This book was provided for review by Amazon Vine UK.

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Fallen Land by Patrick Flanery

fallen landState of the Union…

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Publication Date: 1st May 2013

“Anyone who doesn’t believe in freedom at eighteen is a fascist. Anyone who doesn’t believe in security at forty is a criminal.”

In this extraordinary book, Flanery delves deep into the troubled American psyche in the post 9/11, post global crash world where the tectonic plates of certainty and complacency have shifted with volcanic and destructive results.

When the economic collapse strikes, Paul Krovik loses everything, including his family and the house that he built for them. He had planned to build a whole development but now the few completed houses stand, already decaying, on swampy land in the middle of an unfinished building site. Louise’s family had owned the land for generations until she was forced to sell to Paul and now Louise lives in her old house at the edge of the site. And now Nathaniel and Julie Noailles, with their young son Copley, are moving from their urban, socially liberal life in Boston to live in this suburban house in an unnamed town in the South. Unknown to them, Paul is living in the concealed basement, determined to get the house back…

Patrick Flanery
Patrick Flanery

Flanery’s prose is wonderful and the characters he has crafted are complex and compelling, each damaged by history and experience and each inspiring empathy in the reader. He develops them slowly, letting us see the influences, both personal and political, that have made them what they are: Paul, whose father brought him up on quotations from Emerson, believes in individualism and apocalypse; Louise, descendant of slaves, guilty at losing the land they treasured, and hating Paul for destroying it; and the Noailles, a family whose veneer of liberalism hides dark secrets and is gradually eroded by fear and mistrust. Through their stories, Flanery shows us the stresses and tensions in a nation still dealing with the aftermath of terror and economic meltdown. The society he depicts is one where trust has broken down; where ultimate security is the goal regardless of the cost to personal freedom; where privacy is seen as an unaffordable luxury; and where the state is in the process of passing responsibility for social control into the hands of an unelected, unaccountable and profit-driven private sector.

The descriptions of the decaying house and the swampy land as the rain beats interminably down add to the air of oppressive menace and threat that builds throughout the book. And as events spiral, Flanery’s depiction of the psychological effects on each character is both convincing and disturbing, as love and trust turn gradually into suspicion and paranoia. This is a masterly, multi-layered book, which works on both levels – as a fine, slow-burning psychological thriller, and as a persuasive metaphor for a society in turmoil in response to huge events.

“If we are not in the final chapters of our history then we are at the end of a particular volume, unable to predict how further instalments may unfold.”

Is this the Great American Novel for this decade? As a Brit, I wouldn’t presume to decide that question but I’d certainly nominate it strongly for the shortlist. And, as a Brit, I feel I understand far more clearly where the American psyche is positioned after reading this, and it scares me. I wait with real interest for the reaction of American reviewers. Highly recommended.

NB This review is of a proof copy kindly provided by the publisher, Atlantic Books.

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