Review: Fall Land, By Patrick Flanery

How America swaps slavery for cynical exploitation

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.