Author Patrick Flanery was born in California, raised in Nebraska and now lives in London, England, but his first novel, Absolution, is set in South Africa. It is a riveting exploration of memory and forgiveness and how perceptions of a single incident can vary so greatly. Flanery’s literary interests are wide-ranging; here, he shares his five favourite books and explains why they are so important to him.
1. 2666, Roberto Bolaño, $23
The late Chilean writer’s unfinished masterpiece is grand, mysterious, at times even confounding. Not only about WWII, journalism, academia, and the serial murders of women in Mexico in the 1990s, it is also about a novelist, and what the novel itself can and perhaps must do: to encompass and reflect the great scope and strangeness of humanity. Ultimately, however, Bolaño’s most potent vision is focused on the horrors of patriarchy and the entrenched misogyny that slashes through the history of western societies.
2. Waiting for the Barbarians, J.M. Coetzee, $20
Set in the remote outpost of an imagined empire, this perennially relevant early novel by the great Nobel Laureate is one of the classics of contemporary literature. A potent allegory of late-apartheid South Africa when it was published in 1980, its relevance to ongoing conflicts around the world remains undimmed. Offering a searing meditation on the corrosive perversions of power and the follies of imperial expansion, it movingly demonstrates the ways in which, through the slippages and failures of language, the national, racial and linguistic stranger so often remains unknowable.
3. Invisible Man, Ralph Ellison, $18
The only novel Ellison published in his lifetime is a staggering portrait of African-American experience in the first half of the 20th century, and a magisterial exploration of the limits and possibilities of literary form and voice. It is also a great and moving story of one man’s search for his place in the world. By turns haunting, hilarious, and tragic, it remains one of the most insightful and ambivalent dissections of race, ideology and the American dream.
4. Swann’s Way, Marcel Proust, $17
A work of memory and melancholy, of grand passions and jealousies, the first installment of the seven-volume In Search of Lost Time is also one of the most poignant novels of childhood. Something transformative happens in the course of reading Proust’s famously long sentences: time itself seems to slow and expand as this narrative of class, love and society teaches the reader how it must be read — afloat, on a tide of language.
5. Agaat, Marlene van Niekerk, $30
Originally published in Afrikaans, Agaat is an epic novel of place and race: in this case, South Africa in the second half of the 20th century. Masterfully projecting the crises of apartheid onto the canvas of one farm, the novel charts the torturous, slow-burning relationship that plays out over a lifetime between the farm owner, Milla de Wet, and her servant and caregiver, Agaat. Unquestionably the most important and urgent writer working in South Africa today, Van Niekerk is a giant of world literature. If you read one book on this list, make it Agaat.