My father’s house
Harvill Secker, $32.99
Joseph O’Connor is one of those novelists who can be an engaging yarn spinner and also crafts a sentence with great attention to the cadence of the prose, leaving you as struck by the musicality of his ear as you are by the twists and turns of his plot.
This is a dazzling story set in Rome during the German occupation, with the crucial difference that Vatican City, the Pope’s domain, is a neutral space. From here, at Christmas 1943, an Irish priest, Monsignor Hugh O’Flaherty, organized the escape of numerous people wanted by the Nazis, with the help of a group forming his “chorus”, including a titled British ambassador, his Cockney Minder, a dynamic Italian Street man, a Contessa, an Irish woman, a gay journalist and a professional British Army officer, casual and easygoing.
They are a brilliant, extremely personable crew and incredibly brave. Each presents part of the narrative of an interview or written statement from the early ’60s, and it is remarkable how O’Connor maintains a consistent narrative while still doing justice to the individual quality of these memories.
At the heart of it all is the Monsignor, a merciful and badass Irishman, an Irishman who fights ’til you drop, but is also a religious man who believes in a loved one’s forgiveness as an article of faith in God.
This is a kind of historical thriller, rich in color and with a tendency towards melodrama that is not controlled but hard to miss. There’s a not-so-sinister encounter with Pope Pius XII, conducted with deliberate grandiosity, and there’s a ghastly villain who is chief of the SS and has a ferocity inseparable from his hysteria.
“In my Father’s house there are many mansions,” Jesus said. Or rooms, as O’Connor calls it for the sake of clarity. He wants to conjure up every detail: the cat with the haughty yellow eyes that someone calls Cleopatra, the smell of burning dust, the rats bloated like monsters of the animal kingdom, the stew of lungs, the extraordinary bravery and bestial baseless sadism of the humanity .
My father’s house is a thrilling tale of dark and crooked stairways that rot and creak, leading to horrible falls and nightmare visions. It’s all over the top and at the same time done with tremendous and compelling power. O’Connor, brother of Sinead, is a master of all excesses: he puts everything on too thick, but it’s impossible to tell the artistry from the exuberant hackwork because the mix is so utterly blended.
https://www.smh.com.au/culture/books/the-irish-priest-fighting-the-nazis-from-the-heart-of-the-vatican-20230306-p5cpub.html?ref=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_source=rss_culture My Father’s House by Joseph O’Connor