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Book club: My Father’s House by Joseph O’Connor

by
01 June 2023

Richard Lamey reads Joseph O’Connor’s thriller My Father’s House, based on the actions of Mgr Hugh O’Flaherty in Nazi-occupied Rome in 1943

THIS stylish, gripping, and inspiring book, My Father’s House, is based on a true story of courage made manifest through the power of friendship. The title refers both to the fragile safety that the Vatican City provided for those resisting Nazism and, brilliantly, to the way in which Allied service personnel, refugees, and Jews were in hiding in “many mansions” all across the city.

It is 1943. Italy is slowly being liberated by American and Commonwealth forces, but Rome is still occupied. People are hidden away by Mgr Hugh O’Flaherty and his network of friends, until it seems that you can’t open a coal cellar without finding a roomful of British soldiers. (In reality, O’Flaherty’s network is credited with saving nearly 7000 lives.)

Desperate to assert control, Berlin sends a new Gestapo Head to break O’Flaherty’s network and terrify the city into obedience. He is Paul Hauptmann.

O’Flaherty himself is a complex and believable hero. Part of O’Connor’s genius is that we hear O’Flaherty’s own voice and see him through the narration of his friends. He is a papal diplomat brought up in rural Ireland in the bloody years of Irish Independence. We learn to know him through the warm tales of his life as a priest fresh to Rome, and his delight and ease in the city. He came to be friends with the people who are risking their lives alongside him. The mix of first- and third-person narratives feels fresh, insightful, and true.

His journey into heroism is inevitable once he is faced with the stark brutality of a Nazi prisoner-of-war camp and the craven ambivalence of the papacy. He was brought up to despise British soldiers; now he cannot but rescue them from the Hauptmanns of this world. The practical concerns of having enough money to buy food for everyone in hiding are constant. He is surrounded by dear friends who sparkle and shine, but he is also set apart by the burden of responsibility which he uniquely carries for his friends and every one of the “books” in hiding. He is aged by the knowledge of what will follow if the network is compromised.

O’Flaherty and Hauptmann are consciously set up as rivals in scenes reminiscent of the film Heat. Both men are haunted by the possibility of failure and driven by how much rests on their success.

Hauptmann embodies something of the terrible paradoxes in the heart of Germany in the 1930s — cultured and brutal, urbane and ruthless. He brings his family with him, living a troubling double life as a dealer of arbitrary death and a father. At times, you have to stop to think hard about what is happening, because it is so awful and yet, in the story, mundane. The narrative moves on, but someone’s torture is beginning, or their life ends. Towards the end of the book, that gap shuts horribly as, casually and meaninglessly, Hauptmann executes someone whom we thought he liked.

O’Connor is one of the most talented and respected writers of his generation. This is his tenth novel. He immerses the reader by revealing only what the characters can see and know, nothing more. A key example of this is O’Flaherty’s chaotic and confusing emergency night-time mission, delivering cash around the city, which forms the climax of the book. It goes on for page after page with little sense of where O’Flaherty is heading. It is an unusual and intense style, which draws you into the moment because of the danger that could lie around the next corner. We don’t know what waits, and neither does our hero.

© Urszula SoltysThe author, Joseph O’Connor, an award-winning Irish writer

O’Connor has a real gift for memorable scenes that live long in the memory and feel almost like a short story — the “choir” practising in a disused room and seizing a moment of harmony and happiness while creating their cover story; O’Flaherty hiding his notes away while under intense threat; the confrontation in the confessional; a network member realising that he does not have the courage that he needs to do the job that he volunteered for, and being met with understanding and sympathy by the rest of the network.

The voices of “the choir” who form the network are drawn affectionately and delicately. In some ways, the whole novel is a celebration of friendship. O’Connor also has consistent wit and lightness of touch — when, for example, some American servicemen insist on throwing balls from house to house across the street after they are told that they can’t go outside.

My Father’s House resonates because of the quality and confidence with which O’Connor writes, trusting his readers to pick up allusions and whispers, choosing always to show rather than tell. It resonates because, much as he describes the clash of good and evil, O’Connor still allows for complexity in the hearts of his main characters. It resonates because of the compelling pas de deux of Hauptmann and O’Flaherty, each of them carrying a burden that is slowly crushing them. It resonates because of the deep understanding and respect that are the lifeblood of the network.

Above all, it is a book that resonates because it retells a true story of courage, compassion, and defiance in dark days. (Readers who enjoy the story will find an excellent bibliography at the end of the novel to find out more about O’Flaherty.)

We still live in a world of great and seemingly immovable forces. O’Connor’s book is not only a great and memorable read: it is also a warning against passivity, an inspiration to courage, and an invitation to stand for the gospel, even when those in authority draw back.

Canon Richard Lamey is the Rector of St Paul’s, Wokingham, and Area Dean of Sonning, in the diocese of Oxford.

My Father’s House by Joseph O’Connor is published by Harvill Secker at £20 (Church Times Bookshop £18); 978-1-78730-082-8.

Listen to Richard Lamey in conversation with Sarah Meyrick in this week’s Church Times podcast. This is a monthly series produced in association with the Church Times Festival of Faith and Literature


MY FATHER’S HOUSE — SOME QUESTIONS

  • How effective did you find the different voices that O’Connor uses to tell his story, and the different types of writing, e.g. newspaper interviews, letters, diaries, etc. What was the benefit of this? What was the cost?
  • Which is your favourite scene in the book? Why does it work so well for you?
  • The cover of the book says “Occupied Rome. One man takes a stand.” Is this a book about one man or a book about a group of friends? Or something else?
  • What difference does it make to know that this book is based on real people and real events?
  • The book concludes with a deep study of great Christian themes, concerning love and repentance and sacraments. What does it mean at the end that Hugh baptises Hauptmann, but will not hear his confession?


IN OUR next Book Club page, on 7 July, we will print extra information about our next book, Small Things Like These by Claire Keegan. It is published by Faber & Faber at £8.99 (£8.09); 978-0-571-36870-9).


THE BOOK

Claire Keegan’s short novel Small Things Like These is set in a small Irish town in the mid-1980s. At the centre of the story is Bill Furlong, a coal merchant, who, in the busy weeks leading up to Christmas, works hard to ensure that he can provide for his five daughters. While delivering coal to the local convent, he encounters a girl in distress. This unsettling encounter causes him to question both his and the town’s ability to screen out the uncomfortable truths about the Madgalene laundries. The moral dilemma that then consumes him provides the novel with its dramatic tension. The author’s sparing prose reflects the monotony of the coal merchant’s life, while capturing place and emotion to great effect. A powerful novel with an emotional punch.


THE AUTHOR

The Irish writer Claire Keegan grew up on a farm in Wexford before going on to study English and political science at Loyola University, New Orleans, at the age of 17. Her debut collection of short stories, Antarctica, won the Rooney Prize for Irish Literature and the William Trevor Prize. Her novella Foster is now included as a text for the Irish Leaving Certificate and was described by The Times as one of the top 50 works of fiction to be published in the 21st century. Her novel Small Things Like These was shortlisted for the 2022 Booker prize. Her award-winning stories have been translated into 30 languages.


BOOKS FOR THE NEXT TWO MONTHS

August: The Lincoln Highway by Amor Towles
September: Demon Copperhead by Barbara Kingsolver

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