BIDDING WAR: Leading British publishers fought for the right to publish Patrick Flanery's debut novel.

IMAGINE writing a debut novel that becomes the focus of an intense auction between three leading British publishers less than a month after you've submitted it. Now, expand this vision, so that within weeks of the bidding war, the novel has been sold into nine translations ranging from Norway to Spain and Poland to Israel. This has been the reality for Patrick Flanery, an American living in London. He has visited South Africa frequently over the past decade and chose to set his extraordinary book, Absolution (Atlantic Books), here.

"It didn't start in South Africa," says Flanery. "Initially the book had no setting. It was about censorship and was based, as I acknowledge in Absolution, on JM Coetzee's Giving Offence: Essays on Censorship."

He read Coetzee as part of his doctoral research on the publishing history of Evelyn Waugh's novels, one of which, Vile Bodies, was banned in the UK. "That was the beginning. I thought of America, then an unnamed African country, then simply a nowhere place, in which to set it."

Not quite sure what to do with his unfinished book in 2005, Flanery decided to complete his doctorate. "When I returned to the book four years later, I realised South Africa was the appropriate place for it and that Oudtshoorn, Prince Albert and Cape Town had, in fact, been in my mind as I was writing it." It was, he says, "initially a set of philosophical dialogues that the main character, writer Clare Wald, has about her relationship with apartheid's censors".

The finished product is as far removed from that dusty, academic approach as the average writer's dreams are from Flanery's publishing reality. It contains imagined images, by Wald, of violence perpetrated against her daughter that involves cages on a sea shore. They are psychologically brutal and chilling. Sibling rivalry is depicted so intensely that I'd imagined only someone who had suffered it could have evoked it that vividly. Yet Flanery is an only child.

We meet the ageing Clare Wald, world-renowned author, mother and critic, discussing her biography with young Sam Leroux, a South African expatriate returning to Cape Town after years in New York. The sparring starts immediately. "'My editor says nice things about you. I don't like your looks though. You look fashionable.' She draws her lips back on the final syllable, her teeth apart. There's a flicker of grey tongue," writes Flanery.

Leroux has returned to South Africa to write the biography that could launch his literary career. Or, has he? How honest is Wald prepared to be about a past in which she may, or may not have been, complicit in crimes concerning the apartheid censors. And, are her crimes against her family real or imagined? She's consumed with guilt about her dead sister, Nora who married a white supremacist, a big deal, in apartheid's National Party.

She feels a possible betrayal by her led to Nora's murder. Conversely, Nora perpetrated an act of sibling rivalry so dreadful, I tell Flanery, maybe murder was appropriate.

The biggest cross Wald burdens herself with, however, is that of her daughter. Laura was an anti-apartheid struggle activist who resorted to acts of violence to achieve liberation. Wald fears she neglected her daughter and could have been a more hands-on, immediate mother. She will never know. Laura disappeared without a trace, leaving her mother consumed by grief and guilt. Leroux, too, has demons that need exorcising. They involve his dead parents, his grotesque, abusive guardian who was murdered, and maybe Wald.

The book moves backwards and forwards between 1989, our 1994 democracy, and the present. It is narrated in four different streams. Chapters alternate in their perspectives as Wald and Leroux recount the past and the present, finally converging.

It sounds complicated and, indeed, it is a multi layered, cleverly constructed novel. But, it reads like an exquisitely crafted thriller. The pace never flags and the narrative is gripping. Yet I found myself slowing down to reread some of Flanery's descriptions, such as a New York window reflecting "a canary sludge of taxis, bleeding brake lights".

His depiction of South Africa is powerful and disturbing. In it, we live in a paradise of bunker-type homes equipped with "an alarm, panic buttons, back-up generator, deadbolts, burglar bars, reinforced bulletproof glass". I scribbled "OTT" in the book's margin before realising it was spot on.

Before meeting Flanery, I wondered how an American raised in Omaha, Nebraska, who graduated in film and worked in that industry before studying for his doctorate at that most English of universities, Oxford, could grasp the complexities of apartheid and of the "new" South Africa as finely as he has. For it is all there, the brutality and censorship that dominated the 1960s through to the 1980s, followed by the present greed, corruption and crime.

Flanery immersed himself in South African film and literature, in the history of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) "and the kinds of theoretical and ethical imperatives that are at play in the present".

His frequent trips here have included living in Joburg, taking trips through the Karoo and over the Seweweekspoort Pass. He captures that rugged rip through the Cape mountains, a place I've often driven through, so evocatively in Absolution that I was back there in a flash.

The author, for whom a great future has been predicted, published his first poem at the age of seven. He dictated it to his mother. She pounded it, and other stories he wrote, on to an antique Underwood typewriter in their Omaha basement.

Oxford University was "a romantic idea. I was an Anglophile from a young age and tried for many years to trace the origins of that."

Flanery was involved in a discussion about his book at Wits University while here. He's been asked for his views on absolution being possible in South Africa. I get the strong impression that ordinarily he wouldn't volunteer them. Pressed, he says: "Yes, but not in a single event like the TRC. It seems to me to have been the beginning of a process and a conversation that will hopefully continue."

He pauses before reflecting on US President Barack Obama's election "and the brief moment, which has sadly passed, in which America began to have the kind of dialogue it needs to have about race. But, instead of that we've lurched to this incredibly polarised, vitriolic, racist discourse."

He had hoped white Americans might own up to being beneficiaries of a racist system - "my own family's background was one of being slave owners". He's not sure how he can atone for the weight of that history and if it's possible "to define absolution for one's family".

Read Absolution. It's up there with the best on the trauma that defines our country.