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Hearth of Darkness: Michele Magwood Chats to Patrick Flanery about Fallen Land

Fallen LandBy Michele Magwood for The Sunday Times

Fallen Land
Patrick Flanery
Atlantic Books

At the heart of Patrick Flanery’s superb new novel Fallen Land lies a deeply-embedded family memory. “In the early 60s my grandmother went bankrupt and lost her house,” he tells me when we meet for lunch in Johannesburg. “Her husband had just died, so she’d lost everything. She returned to the house and lived there secretly for weeks, with no plumbing. The neighbours were bringing her food. And then she was evicted again.”

The sense of her grief, of her dislocation in losing her home, came to the fore again when the financial crisis hit the US, and words like “foreclosure” and “subprime mortgage” dominated the headlines. Returning a few years ago to Omaha, Nebraska, the city in which he was raised, Flanery saw that cornfields and old woods had been ripped out and planted instead with bloated, flimsy homes.

“That was the jumping-off point for the novel,” he says. “There was something so evocative about a neighbourhood of half-constructed McMansions falling apart, empty.”

Fallen Land is a state-of-the-nation novel, or rather, a state-of-the-nation’s-anxiety novel, a powerful morality tale with a spoonful of thriller. It opens in 1919 with a startling scene. A lynching has taken place and the tree, with two bodies dangling from its branches, has been swallowed whole by the earth, sucked into a sinkhole.

Nearly a century later a man is being held in a maximum security prison, his story rooted in that strange site. Paul Krovik was a developer, a rangy, muscled, can-do man steeped in an extreme Emersonian philosophy of self-reliance. He had bought the tainted land from an old black widow whose family had farmed it for generations, and laid out his ideal neighbourhood, “a rational utopia where neighbours look after one another without recourse to the state”.

What with the collapsing economy and his shoddy workmanship, Krovik fails spectacularly. When the bank forecloses on his own house he begins to unravel.

Into this troubled landscape comes a smart Boston family. They buy both Krovik’s home and, to an extent, his ideal of neighbourliness, but their lives will soon unravel, too. Their son Copley begins to show disturbing behaviour, insisting there is something – or someone – living in the basement. A sadistic, bullying streak surfaces in his affable father Nathaniel, caught in the net of the increasingly fascist corporation he works for. Copley’s mother Julia, a gifted scientist, is perfecting a robot with a disquieting resemblance to Copley himself.

Their rigid, by-the-latest-book parenting is toxic, as is the regimented, company-owned school the boy attends. The small family ricochets around the half-empty house, trying to find purchase on the dream they bought into. And witnessing it all is the widow, still grieving for her land.

Flanery’s skill lies in his layering of the story, introducing as he does a barely-audible tremolo of disquiet that builds steadily to a shocking rupture of madness and violence. He explores the notion of the house as home, as refuge and shelter – the notion at the very heart of the American dream. His book leaves us with much to think about, such as the Orwellian creep of big corporations into every facet of our lives.

Flanery came to notice last year with his debut novel Absolution. Set in South Africa, it was widely acclaimed for its perceptive portrayal of a country shadowed by trauma. Critics around the world were agreed: Patrick Flanery was a novelist to watch. Fallen Land has proven them right. – @michelemagwood

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