‘Danger is everywhere, especially in the suburbs’.
Fallen Land depicts a moderate dystopian world only subtly altered from our own. Orbiting the central narrative is the EKK, an organisation that plans to use prisoners as an unpaid workforce, fine children for misdemeanours at school, and install cameras fitted in every home; ‘Private is now public, in the interests of security’ is its motto. This novel thus engages with the difficult and charged issues facing individuals in an increasingly technologised era, particularly relating to the environment and security, including threats from both foreign terrorists and unstable self-serving individuals on home soil – everyone is a suspect. The America of Fallen Land is painted as a suspicious and individualistic nation receptive to the privatisation of home and national security through EKK and their resoundingly Orwellian approach to social control masked by a façade of public interest.
Fallen Land follows Patrick Flanery’s highly acclaimed debut, Absolution, a look at South Africa through the life of a reclusive Cape Town novelist. Flanery’s abiding interest in racial politics, and in drawing parallels between the past and present, is evident in this book, which tackles the country of his birth. The prologue depicts the hanging of a white man and a black slave in 1919, and the site—Poplar Farm—is positioned as a microcosm of twenty-first century America and all its associated fears and fixations. Contemporary Americans fight over Poplar Farm just like their colonial forbears who first “discovered” the land.
Paul Krovik, the architect of the Poplar Farm estate, is a man with a dream, arguably an archetypally American one – to build a home, create a successful business and raise his family – perhaps a nod to the not quite dissipated ideas concerning rugged individualism. Yet Paul is obsessed with what he perceives to be the imminent apocalypse and becomes transfixed with altering and improving his underground shelter, simultaneously seeking revenge for the loss of his wife and family, who leave him because of his obsessive behaviour. The house he builds for himself and his family turns out imperfect, unfinished, slightly warped;.
Louise is the descendant of George Freeman, the black man who was lynched on Poplar Farm in 1919. Following the death of her husband, Louise was forced to sell her property to Paul Krovik; while she still lives in a house on his land, a council bill is pending that would force her to vacate the property. Louise has a deep and resounding connection to the land around her, and her voice permeates the text as a challenge to the technology and development around her: ‘There is no stillness on this earth. Everywhere is the movement of machines. If not on land, then underground, overhead, or slicing through seas.”
A third major character, Nathaniel, moves to Poplar Farm with his family and undergoes a significant transformation, made keenly apparent by his increasing involvement and alignment with the manifesto of EKK, the ‘holistic’ security company that he works for, a company whose managing director is proud to suggest is in the ‘business of being the planet’.
Captivating from start to finish, this novel not only flourishes with an imaginative, read-in-one-sitting flair, but also succeeds in seeking out the niggling doubts and pervasive fears about this era and displaying them without straying into the realm of the overly sentimental or overtly polemic. The subtle beauty of both the language and characterisation enables this novel to encapsulate a time that appears to be more advanced than previous eras, yet faces new and terrifying dangers.