For the JC Feb 16 2023
Joseph O’Connor’s new novel, My Father’s House, is two things: a compelling, twisty thriller, whose outcome is hard to guess; and an exquisitely rendered piece of literature, from a masterful writer.
The novel is based on the extraordinary true story of a Catholic priest, Hugh O’Flaherty, in 1943 Rome, and the running battle of wits he and a team of unlikely conspirators played against the terrifying Nazi leader, Paul Hauptmann.
Those that run the Escape Line — an initiative Hauptmann is determined to stamp out — are gathered together in what becomes known as the Choir, under the tutelage of Monsignor O’Flaherty.
The team of acknowledged misfits — including a widowed Italian countess, a flamboyant British diplomat to the Vatican, a Jewish Londoner jazz musician turned inspired scrounger — do actually sing at music rehearsals, conducted by the Monsignor. But all the while, he is distributing detailed instructions to each of them for what to do on the next Rendimento, the mission to help save thousands of Allied men.
O’Connor endows his Hugh O’Flaherty — whom he warns us in an afterword is a fictionalised version of the man himself — with a near- encyclopaedic knowledge of the boltholes and rabbit warrens of Rome and Vatican City. The latter’s importance to the story is, of course, because of the Vatican’s supposed neutrality in the war, a neutrality echoed by that of Ireland.
This is a love letter to Rome, Italy, and Ireland, by turns heart-rending, comedic and awe-inspiring. O’Connor, professor of creative writing at the University of Limerick, has a glorious way with words: he writes of Cahersiveen in County Kerry “where a bottle of tomato ketchup would be considered exotic and possession of a clove of garlic would have you burned as a witch”.
Or Delia Keirnan, a famed singer in Ireland before becoming the wife of the senior Irish diplomat to the Vatican, recalling her first meeting with O’Flaherty: “His means of transport that night was his motorcycle. Here he’s ambling up the steps to the residence and he grey with the dust from boots to helmet, huge leather gloves on him like a flying ace, and he blessing himself at the Lourdes water font on the hall stand. As though a priest dressed like that was the most everyday sight you ever saw. And the bang of motor oil off him.” Ah, yes, as my old art editor used to say, he can throw a word to a pig.
There is a guest appearance by an outraged Pope, furious at O’Flaherty’s “insubordination” when it comes to visiting prisoners of war in Rome, fascinating in the light of what was later learned about the behaviour of the wartime pontiff in relation to the Nazi regime.
And as each chapter heading steers the reader to the countdown — on Christmas Eve, no less — before the frighteningly risky next Rendimento, we become utterly invested in the safety and the ultimate fate of “our” Monsignor and the motley members of the Choir.
No subject relating to priests and faith is left untouched by O’Connor’s delicate style. No spoilers, though we know who ultimately won the war. A delicious hymn to love, food, and courage. Brava!
My Father’s House by Joseph O’Connor is published by Harvill Secker at £20