Review: Fall Land, By Patrick Flanery
How America swaps slavery for cynical exploitation
Sunday 09 June 2013
Patrick Flanery's Absolution was widely acclaimed by reviewers. His follow-up has a slower pace to begin with, but soon becomes gripping. In a small town an ex-teacher and descendant of slaves, Louise Washington, visits a prisoner, Paul Krovik. Before we can find out why he is incarcerated, the action shifts to the past. Louise inherited 160 acres of land from her grandfather, an ex-slave turned free tenant, whose brother had been left it by the liberal white mayor following a mob attack in which mayor and brother were lynched.
Unending farming disasters led to Louise being forced to sell the land to Paul, an unscrupulous property developer. Paul's ambitious plans were thwarted by shoddy workmanship, leaving disgruntled customers who successfully sued. Paul's debts forced the sale of his house to a Boston family, Nath, Julia, and their son Copley. But Paul was not willing to leave. Seized by paranoid delusions, he planned to live in a secret bunker.
The action unfolds through interweaving strands following Louise, Paul, and the new owners. Flanery's prose is lucid, his descriptions of the land detailed and rich: "cottonwoods in their thick-trunked waltz"; "roots cross stitch the earth". Two unfinished houses seen at night are "twin eye sockets scraped clean with a spoon". The atmosphere of unease builds up to a high tension. Paul's paranoia is convincingly portrayed, and Flanery provides flashes of insight into Paul's callous behaviour: the felling of the trees, for example, doesn't distress him because as a child he associated tree felling with a decrease in noise when the railroad opposite was developed.
The theme of exploitation throbs throughout on this land once occupied by slaves. Nath was abused by his father, and his mother colluded. Nath tries his best with Copley but his lack of insight unleashes his own inner bully: abused fighting the compulsion to turn abuser. The city has exploited Louise's vulnerability, halving its offer on her cottage when she has spent her savings on fighting the demolition order. Most corrosive of all is the monstrous global corporation for which Nath works, which has capitalist tentacles in every area of life – and even death. Nath's job involves developing a plan to use prisoners and parolees as virtually unpaid labour, working long hours on schemes that will enhance the company's profits. Copley's school is a part of the same company, its harsh, dictatorial regime encouraging bullying and racism while reaping vast profits from fines for infringements of egregious rules. Nath's gradual besmirchment by the grubby politics of his firm is grimly compelling. Copley is the most fragile victim of all, the truth-teller whose word is disbelieved.
Flanery doesn't flaunt his knowledge. When Louise says "Hope is not a bird, feathers are too fragile for hope", astute readers will recognise the reference to Emily Dickinson's "Hope Is the Thing With Feathers". As the tension builds to the denouement, the reader wonders whether hope and justice will triumph over power devoid of ethics. A fine book.
Grace Dent on TV The Secret Life of the Pub is sexist, ageist and a breath of fresh air
Art Megumi Igarashi criticises Japan's 'backwards' attitude to women's sexual expression
tv Singer could become the most unlikely star of Westeros
Ray Davies' Sunny Afternoon scoops the most awardsTheatre
Grace DentChannel 4 show proves there's no app for happiness
Arts & Ents blogs
- 1 BBC election debate: The one photo that summed up the whole 90-minute leaders debate
- 2 18th century sex toy found in 'toilet of sword fighting school' in Poland
- 3 US? China? India? The 10 biggest economies in 2030 will be...
- 4 'I wish my teacher knew...': Young students share their 'heartbreaking' worries in notes
- 5 Rebecca Francis accuses Ricky Gervais of using 'influence' to target female hunters after receiving barrage of death threats
Better Call Saul creator Peter Gould on the creative concerns of a prequel, season 2 and the mind-numbing realities of the small courts
Britain's Got Talent 2015: RSPCA investigating Marc Metral's miming dog after cruelty complaints
Star Wars 7: The Force Awakens trailer: The most extreme fan reactions on Twitter
Doctor Who film will definitely happen, leaked Sony emails reveal
The Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice trailer has leaked – watch
The only black face in the Ukip manifesto is on the page about overseas aid
If I’m being racially abused I don’t need a stranger with a saviour complex to rescue me
Ukip is the only main political party to not address LGBT rights in its manifesto
Food banks: One million Britons will soon be using them, according to Trussell Trust
BBC election debate: The one photo that summed up the whole 90-minute leaders debate
Religion isn't growing, it is becoming vigorous in its demise, says philosopher AC Grayling