Home, by Marilynne Robinson

This 2008 work is a difficult novel for me to evaluate. It is about the Boughton family introduced in the writer’s previous work, Gilead, named for the town in which the family lives. But it is particularly about Glory Boughton and her estranged brother Jack. Glory has returned home to Gilead to care for her widowed father, Robert Boughton, a retired minister who is in ill health, when Jack unexpectedly arrives home as well, to be greeted warmly by Gloria but less so by his father, who resents his son’s twenty-year absence.

This novel has received favorable reviews, but it was difficult for me to identify with this family early in the work, when it is simply introducing its three main characters. But once it begins to develop their relationships, especially between Glory and Jack, my interest grew. For growing up in her father’s faith has instilled in Glory a sense of kindness and generosity, and one can easily identify with her. And, besides, she still loves her brother, who regrets abandoning his family and yet seems programmed to remain the black sheep among what were eight children. Glory’s relationship with her brother grows more and more complex for us, but it is through their conversations, their constant give and take, rather than through any physical actions. Indeed, their honest interactions represent the novel’s only plot, and one reads simply to learn where their relationship is headed.

Having been raised by their father, a minister, and having spent considerable time with John Ames, their father’s best friend and also a minister, we find that underpinning the complex family relationships is the idea of faith, a faith that obliges love and yet also carries its own obligations. Jack was the favorite of his father’s eight children, but the father both resents the boy’s abandonment of his family for twenty years and feels guilty with the realization that their alienation is partly his own fault. Whereas, Jack now has guilt feelings about his troubled youth before he left home. Glory, on the other hand, loves her brother despite his youthful indiscretions, and yet distrusts all males after having been abandoned by a fiancée whom she believed loved her. Having been raised by a minister, “faith for her,” she thinks, “was habit and family loyalty.”

The neighboring minister, John Ames, the main character in Gilead, is also a kind of father figure, and adds to the spiritual underpinning of these characters. As Robinson has Glory think, “Ames and her father had quarreled over [predestination] any number of times, her father asserting the perfect sufficiency of grace with something like ferocity, while Ames maintained, with a mildness his friend found irksome, that the gravity of sin could not be gainsaid.”

  1. O. Scott in The New York Times suggest one explanation of these family relationships when he writes that “nothing in the novel rules out the possibility that Jack might exist outside the grace of God, and that this…might explain his loneliness and estrangement in the bosom of such a warm and generous family. Indeed, he also writes that “Home and Gilead are marvelous novels about family, friendship and aging…they are great novels.”

I myself would not go that far. But Robinson has certainly taken an intriguing approach to this family. That is, their continuous conversations bring out their innermost thoughts, as they cook for each other, clean the house, and tidy up the yard, all the while helping us to understand them as they strive to understand each other.

Michiko Kakatani, on the other hand, writes in the Times that “Home gives us scene after scene of Jack and Glory—and sometimes their father—talking to each other about their doubts and regrets and failed dreams. The result is a static and even suffocating narrative in which very little is dramatized…and it makes the characters, especially Jack, seem terribly self-absorbed.” Which also describes my reaction to the early sections of the novel. But then I began to relate to these same characters, began to see the pain, the restraint, their reaching out to one another, all of which enriched their mutual portraits.

The title “Home” is well chosen, for it focuses the reader on the essence of this novel, just as the title of “Gilead” focused one on the relationships in their town. Here, Glory and Jack have both returned home, having fled a sense of failure, of unfulfillment, of empty relationships and a resulting loneliness. What they seek from their father and their home’s familiar rooms is a return to their comfortable past, to an acceptance that will bring forgiveness, love, and self-worth.

There is also a sense of irony at the end. Jack misses out on a connection that might have answered certain needs. The scene is too underwritten, however, to carry the emotion it appears to strive for. And while Jack has returned home for some kind of acceptance, his father’s resentment reaches out through the love that he has long preached; and it is his refusal to pain his father further that prompts the boy’s departure. And so, while Jack does not want to remind his father of their past, his leaving further stokes his father’s bitterness.

This novel moves too quietly to prompt me to seek out further novels by Robinson. I write this, even though such a decision may be my loss. For this author certainly probes the subtle family relationships that so often appeal to me. And she underscores this probing through characters who retain their spiritual faith as they contend with guilt, forgiveness, and the reality of human emotions. (November, 2019)

Alternate Side, by Anna Quindlen

This 2018 novel reveals what a wonderful writer Quindlen is. Why do I say that? Because nothing happens. And yet this novel is constantly interesting. Instead of a plot to draw one on, one is drawn on, instead, by a series of portraits, a portrait of a neighborhood on New York’s Upper West Side, where alternate side parking prevails; a portrait of friendly, and unfriendly, neighbors; and a portrait of a marriage and that couple’s family. And as we read on, each portrait grows deeper, becomes more complex, and the novel grows still richer.

At the center of this novel are Nora and Charlie Nolan, both in their fifties, who met casually thirty years ago and quickly realized that each was the partner they needed. Like many youth, their dream was to prove themselves in New York, and as their careers advanced they found an ideal house on a dead end street, where they encountered a group of interesting neighbors. As the novel opens, the value of their homes has appreciated so much that it has impacted the group’s world outlook. And while each of these neighbors is different, as are their relationships with Nora and Charlie, each is also wealthy and white, and they grow united against the world around them, especially as they share a sense of privilege.

Or, as Quindlen writes of that slow social awareness: “There was a shadow government on the block, a shadow government that knew where all the bodies were buried, a system of mutual dependence, one group needing services, the other employment. Nora was never sure where the balance of power fell.”

The neighborhood is tied together by a parking lot, created when an old town house burns down and is never replaced. Charlie is exited when he finally gains one of the six spots in that parking lot, while Nora is unimpressed. Thus are introduced a beginning to their differences.

One resident, George, assumes obnoxious control over the parking lot and serves to tie together the early stages of the novel. But the novel’s one major incident occurs when another resident, Jack, who has anger management issues, slams the group’s revered handyman, Ricky, in the leg with a golf club during a dispute in the parking lot.

This act of violence is the one major incident in the novel, and does emphasize the social tension that exists in their community. It also betrays another small difference of opinion between Nora and Charlie, over who is to blame. Which leads them, eventually, to doubt their respective roles. For while Nora feels at home in New York, Charlie yearns for a quieter, less competitive life in a warmer climate. She, after all, has a prototypical New York type job as the director of a Museum of Jewelry, even if she yearns to find a more significant job, while he is a frustrated investment banker, termed too decent to thrive in that cut-throat environment.

Many of the novel’s pages, however, are given over to normal neighborhood events, such as the gossip at house parties, the hidden envy behind closed doors, and the luncheons among competitive wives, as well as the raising of both children and pets, the inconveniences of pests and faulty plumbing, and the disputes with poor people whose rooms from a neighboring street face their the back of their town houses. All of which focuses on the privileged life of these neighbors and leads the reader to wonder what events we should be concentrating on. There seems to be no real story. And with no story driving it, there is no story to reach an ending.

And yet there is an ending, of course. Not an entirely satisfactory one for this reader. But we see a major relationship come to an end, and the author tries to make it a typical failure between two people who see the world from a different perspective and have different goals.

But life is not art, and art is not life. What works as an ending in one case does not necessarily work as an ending in another. And Quindlen seems to recognize this, since she tries to broaden the conclusion of her novel. She introduces the idea of an alternate universe. What if certain things in the neighborhood, she asks, had not happened? Or, more realistically, perhaps residents like these do not always remember what they had once had. They have a kind of amnesia, and they ignore the city or the years of their youth. “They’d forgotten where they had come from, how they’d started out. They’d forgotten what the city really was, and how small a part of it they truly were.”

I have to define this as a tacked on ending, an attempt to make this beautiful close-up view of a marriage and a neighborhood a stand-in for the grand and changing history of New York City. But as interesting as the neighborhood scaffold is, it is not strong enough to support such a broad interpretation.

So what remains with me is the incisive portrait of that family, that marriage, and that neighborhood. And I forgive Quindlen for the inconclusiveness of her ending, even as I wish the long life of her main characters had lead to more than a metaphorical lesson. Instead, she simply offers an open ending and suggests it is typical of life, at least modern New York life, and that everyone should now move on.

Some reviewers have suggested that this novel is best appreciated by residents of New York City, with its emphasis on the neighborhood, the upper classes, and the parking issue. But I would dispute that—despite a Google search that reveals far fewer reviews of this novel than serious fiction usually earns. In fact, I do wonder why this work has not received more recognition. Because the presence of a rich social strata and an evocative local environment are usually regarded as strengths in a work of fiction. And most effective of all, we have here a roster of interesting characters whose concerns are real.

One does wonder where Quindlen’s novels will go from here. Is the social environment now of more interest to her than strictly family issues? Miller’s Valley and this novel suggest that this may well be the case. (October, 2019)

Benediction, by Kent Haruf

This 2013 work is another beautifully written novel by this mid-western writer who recently died. It offers another of his portraits of the small town of Holt, Colorado, where we witness various struggling families in this middle-class community. We meet first Dad Lewis, in his seventies, who has a fatal cancer that will allow him to survive only a few more months. He has had things to regret in his life, and some of his ill deeds still haunt him, but he has tried to make amends for many of them, especially any involving his son Frank.

But this novel is to be about more than Dad. He is introduced on the opening pages more to establish the facts of old age, the limited future it offers, the focus on life’s simple verities, and the sense of family, how both the elderly and their children respond to each other’s travails.

Thus, we also meet Mary, Dad’s wife, and their daughter Lorraine; his widowed neighbor Greta May and her eight-year-old granddaughter Alice; the new minister Rob Lyle and his troubled son Thomas; and the elderly Johnson women, Willa and visiting Alene, who live across the field and feel that an eight-year-old may be too much for Greta May to handle.

Lorraine returns home from Denver when she learns of her father’s illness. Greta May welcomes Willa and Alene’s attention to her granddaughter. In the past, Alene had fallen in love with a married man and after losing him fears that she will be alone for the rest of her life. And so her mother suggests they develop a relationship with the child Alice. Meanwhile, Minister Lyle proves to be too liberal for his parishioners, preaching Jesus’ message that love and forgiveness be offered to both sinners and the poor, which many of the townspeople reject. He must also deal with his troubled son Thomas, who can’t adjust to small-town life after living in Denver. And finally there is Dad and Mary’s estranged son Frank, who is homosexual and has fled the prejudices of a small town, leaving his parents to yearn for his return because of his father’s illness.

Thus, we have simultaneous stories of parents and children, of young and old, of love and despair, of families straining at bonds, of young and old searching for hope, and of death’s presence in each of their lives. As Ursula LeGuin writes in The Guardian, “I find that Haruf’s characters… inhabit my mind permanently: they are people I think about. Their conversation is dry and plain, with easy, western cadence, and the author’s narration is similar.” She also writes: “Looking at the Holt novels as a whole, his courage and achievement in exploring ordinary forms of love—the enduring frustration, the long cost of loyalty, the comfort of daily affection—are unsurpassed by anything I know in contemporary fiction.”

One reads with interest of these troubled people (troubled lives are a condition of living, Haruf says) because the author lets us see them from their own perspective and because he also sympathizes with them. As we do as well. Even with the black sheep, Thomas, and Frank. And a major part of letting us see that perspective is through the dialogue, a dialogue that is simple, that is casual, and that includes throw-away lines that appear in any natural conversation, often adding a touch of humor but also revealing character.

One should also note that Haruf is one of those authors who does not use quotation marks. If his dialogue is easily understood as dialogue, it is primarily because each new speaker begins with a new paragraph—which also happens, of course, when using quotation marks. So it has to be visual, the reason certain authors do not use quotation marks. That is, they see those marks as a distraction. And, of course, not using quotation marks here also reflects the simplicity of this author’s approach to his people and their lives. But using no quotation marks will work only if the dialogue has the clear rhythms of speech, not of prose. As it does here.

In discussing his concentration on life’s verities, Haruf told Robert Birnbaum of the literary website, Identity Theory, “There is nothing in these books that I am trying to write that is cynical or satiric or ironic. I am not interested in that. There is a place for that. But in my view that is a kind of easy out.”

For most of this novel, we are simply listening in on the lives of these people. The novel introduces us to multiple relationships, and seems not to emphasize any of the characters, or to be headed in any direction. And yet, we do read on. Because these people, their interactions, their desires and their troubles, are all so human.

And then, as we finish this book, we realize what Haruf’s goal is. He is writing about life. That is why there is no plot, no story that comes to an end. What comes to an end is one life. It is an ending that stands in for all our lives. It is a final 20 pages or so of a character in bed and slowly leaving this world, and family and friends reacting to that slow and inevitable departure.

And so we also realize why the author, the son of a minister, has arrived at this novel’s conclusion. As well as why he has created Minister Lyle. It is to introduce a spiritual dimension. For how can one deal with the final resolution of life without that dimension?

Paul Elie in The New York Times does find an incompleteness in the Reverend Lyle’s presence. But this novel is not about the minister, like it is not about Dad. It is about life and its end. It is about our approach to death, and how, in life or death, we search for light as our destination. It also suggests that at the end of life, as other characters live on, so life goes on. And that as one creates fictional characters one hopes will live on, so do we, as readers, all hope that our own life shall go on.

Haruf died the following year, 2014, and one wonders how much his knowledge of his own fate influenced the writing of this book. He did write one more book in his final days, a novel that focused on love more than on death, and it offered a different story of old people that I also loved. But in sum, I believe this novel offers more of a capstone to his career, and to his life, than that actual final novel. For this one is about the full gamut of life and, eventually, about death itself. (September, 2019)

The Black-Eyed Blonde, by Benjamin Black

I usually avoid these novels commissioned by the estate of a dead author. Like those that feature such heroes as Spenser, James Bond, and Jason Bourne. Because these novels are never the real thing, or their hero the real hero incarnated.

But I may have to change my mind. At least for any pastiche written by Benjamin Black, whose Dublin mysteries I have long admired. Not to mention his true identity as John Banville, a true Irish literary phenomenon.

For here he offers in this 2014 work a terrific recreation of a Philip Marlowe crime story set in a Los Angeles type city of the 1950s. I succumbed particularly to the tongue in cheek style that one associates with the late Raymond Chandler. It may be slightly exaggerated here, but it is still fun to read.

It is particularly reflected in Marlowe’s self-awareness, that of his own lonely life among the low lifes, and then the arrival in his dusty office of this blonde beauty far above his station, and yet, as he dreams, perhaps available. This self-awareness also produces the snappy dialogue one associates with Chandler and private eyes, such as when Marlowe teases others, like the cops that he knows and that he realizes he must keep informed. It is a teasing, however, that can also irritate some cops, even as it entertains us. And Marlowe is aware of this.

But that, as I said, is the entertainment aspect. An equal driver of my interest was the story. After the black-eyed blonde, no stranger to such detective tales, enters Marlowe’s office, he follows tradition and succumbs to her beauty and her charms. Whereupon, off we go. But as Marlowe begins his investigation, it becomes more and more complex and more and more dangerous. As Olen Steinhauer writes in his review in The New York Times, author Black also draws extensively on the conventions of private eye mysteries. The critic cites, in addition to the femme fatale, “the drinking and the bursts of violence; the high society folks with secrets to sweep under the rug, the soulless thugs and surly cops, and the dead.”

This novel begins with the beautiful Claire Cavendish wanting Marlowe to find out what happened to Nico Peterson, her dead lover. He was unexpectedly killed by a hit and run driver and his body mutilated; and she wants to learn what really happened. But things are not that simple, Marlowe learns. He soon finds himself involved with gangsters, drug runners, and rich families, along with the victims of violent torture and murder. Not to mention the novel’s first surprise, what really happened to Nico, or how Marlowe’s fascination with Claire becomes deeper and deeper, and yet his opinion of her becomes more and more uncertain. Could she really love the kind of man he learns Nico is? And so is she as untrustworthy as he suspects? As if we readers of private eye stories were not asking the same question.

There are a number of fine set pieces, such as one in which a casual conversation is interrupted by violence and a kidnapping, while another ends in torture in a swimming pool, from which Marlowe makes an unconvincing escape. But the latter is the only misstep in the novel until the ending. Which does disappoint because it lacks any power, that is, any emotion, any surprise. Olen Steinhauer also reflects this in his review: “There’s an odd emptiness…a suggestion that literary style has triumphed over content, leaving a hollowed-out place where the emotion should have been.”

Which leads one to ask: are these recreations worth doing? Should Banville, and others, spend their valuable time duplicating the feats of our popular fictional heroes? When they could be spending their substantial skills on more original and more literary work. Do they do it because they like the challenge? Or because they like the money? The publishers would seem to want them to do it because of the money. And the public does seem to like to revisit its old heroes. So are we weighing our reading pleasure against the loss of time that some of these authors need to produce possibly great literature?

There is no easy answer in today’s commercial world. Perhaps one is to be found, however, in the fact that I have not been prompted to write to any extent on the content of this work. On its style, yes. On its story, yes. But not on any meaning inside its story. Or inside its characters (except that inherent cleverness).

Bottom line: I would read another Benjamin Black pastiche. On any author’s work. But I still have reservations about anyone else. (September, 2019)

Belgravia, by Julian Fellowes

This 2016 work is an old-fashioned novel, appropriate, perhaps, for a story set in the 19th century. And a not unexpected tale from the creator of Downton Abbey, the highly successful television series. It is about two families, the wealthy and aristocratic Bellasises who live in Belgravia and the wealthy Trenchards, who are nouveau riche, having made their money by developing properties, including in Belgravia. The two families are joined when, on the eve of the Battle of Waterloo in 1814, Edmund Bellasis and Sopha Trenchard meet, fall in love, and marry.

Whereupon, Edmund is killed at Waterloo, and Sophia dies nine months later in childbirth. But the baby, Charles, survives, and the remainder of the novel moves into the 1840s, where that child has become a highly successful cotton entrepreneur. And when this successful man catches the attention of the Bellasises, along with that of the Trenchards, it is more than coincidence. Indeed, it originates the complicated plot to follow, as many in the two families wonder at the interest in the other. Especially the Bellasis, who do not know that the Trenchards had sent the baby away to be raised by a Reverend Pope in order to protect the reputation of their deceased daughter.

The novel’s complications then increase as the Bellasises not only learn from the Trenchards of the connection, but also that Charles’ parents were not truly married before the Battle of Waterloo. Which means Charles is illegitimate. And so is not worthy of receiving the Bellasis inheritance. And also that Sophia Trenchard’s reputation, by giving birth to an illegitimate child, is tarnished according to norms of Victorian society.

It is the discovery of such developments and then the concealing of the disgrace that draws the reader initially into this novel. Indeed, I was continually reminded of the novels of John Galsworthy, as this novel becomes a dual family saga in which members of each family plot to make sure they will preserve or inherit the wealth and reputation of their respective families, and in which servants downstairs try to advance their own careers by discovering why each family is treating Charles so well.

But even more than the plot, my interest was initially driven by how well Fellowes has caught each of his characters, especially those upstairs but also their servants. With incisive comments, he brings us inside their thinking, revealing both their own goals and their reactions to the strategy of others. Some are good people and some are not, as they pursue the possibility of wealth and comfort, or revenge, for themselves.

Indeed, as is summarized in All About Romance: “The characters are scheming, conniving, and unscrupulous, kind, generous, and affectionate, and everything in between.”

And as an aside, the author has also used the services of an historical consultant to establish concrete details of the Victorian era that make this environment convincingly real. Moreover, as Daisy Goodwin writes in The New York Times, the novel reflects the influence of the Victorian era in another way. “The plot devices,” she writes, “will be familiar to anyone who has a passing acquaintance with Victorian fiction: There are missing papers, duplicitous ladies’ maids, gambling debts, dubious marriage lines and long-lost heirs.”

It is these various maneuverings that help the many characters jump off the page. There is ambitious James Trenchard who yearns to be accepted by the aristocracy, his wife Anne who finds social climbing distasteful, their son Oliver who disappoints because he wants to be a squire rather than a businessman and who is jealous of Charles’ success, and, finally, Oliver’s wife Susan who resents her husband’s advances and whose social ambition gives her a roving eye.

On the Bellasis side, there is the Countess of Brokenhurst who is initially disdainful of the Trenchards but who is drawn towards them when Anne tells the Countess that both have this grandson named Charles, and she knows where he is. While the husbands of the two women play minor roles in this novel, a nephew of the Countess does not. This John Bellasis is perennially in need of funds and is used to being supported by the Countess’ husband. Until now. Which makes him resentful, like Oliver, of what he considers the favoritism being given to Charles.

To further complicate matters, John is engaged officially to the beautiful Lady Maria Grey. But Maria, who has agreed to marry him only at the urging of her mother, despises John for what he is—and, when she encounters Charles, falls immediately in love. We thus have a love in the present that mirrors Sophia’s rapturous love in the past. And one that contrasts with Susan’s antagonistic relationship with Oliver.

This resentment by Oliver and John increases the suspense of the novel, as they both seek to learn why their own families are so enamored of Charles. They enlist, at times through deceit, the help of others, especially that of Susan but also some of the downstairs servants. These crafty maneuvers to learn the truth about Charles drive the suspense of the final pages, including a plan to murder Charles that highlights the novel’s climax.

I found this novel to be fascinating reading. Not least because of what Moira Macdonald cites in The Seattle Times. That is, the elaborate plot includes “contentious inheritances, forbidden love affairs, secret pregnancies, sibling rivalries, caddish high-society misbehavior, disloyal servants, and sumptuous frocks.” But interest is also driven, as I wrote, by the incisive characterizations. Which often results in cross-purpose plotting by many of these individuals, some of which succeeds and some of which fails.

Fellowes has written other novels, but they have not been what made his reputation. This novel will certainly advance his name in the literary world, but the fact that it will also be adapted to the visual media seems to suggest where his deeper commitment still lies. (September, 2019)

Crimes of the Father, by Thomas Keneally

It is unusual for a reader to find an Author’s Note at the beginning of a novel that describes his own personal background. But that is exactly what happens here. This 2016 novel is about priests who abuse children. And Keneally describes in his Note how his own early years in a Catholic seminary gave him certain insights for writing this novel. But while he began to train as a priest, and still believes in the mission of the Church, he says he no longer practices his faith. But I don’t write this to complain about his Note or that decision. I write this because his subject is precisely what interested me in this novel. And to stress it offers an unusual start for a literary work. A kind of apologia.

This novel is about a priest who is popular and well-respected by the laity. But Frank Docherty was exiled by the archbishop of Sydney, Australia, in the 1970s for opposing the war in Vietnam, as well as for his liberal theology. Given the choice of leaving the priesthood and staying at home or remaining a priest if his order sends him elsewhere, he agrees to relocate to Canada, where he builds a richly deserved reputation.

As the book opens, he writes ahead to a new archbishop, a cardinal, and asks to be able to return home to Australia as an active priest, as well as to be with his elderly mother during her final years. In the first chapter, he arrives back in Australia in 1996 on leave and to plead his case. But what follows is a little confusing. He first encounters an argumentative and intelligent cab driver Sarah Fagan. Then we are introduced to Maureen Breslin. What is her connection to Father Docherty, we wonder. Then we flash back to the 1960s, and learn that her brother Leo Shannon, a monsignor, had recommended that she discuss with our Father Docherty the problem she has with the Church’s new encyclical on birth control.

To add confusion, we continue moving back and forth in time, especially between the 1970s and the 1990s, as Keneally introduces other people who seem to have no connection. Except, finally, the connection is made. And the novel quickly comes together, as it begins to explore the moral scandal of the sexual abuse of minors by Catholic priests. For various people we have and will meet have been victims of such priests, and the novel grows in richness as the author proceeds to explore the attitudes and reactions of both the victims and the perpetrators, as well as those determined to expose them. And to dramatize this, the author sets up various confrontations that explore how the victims respond when their victimization becomes public, and how the Church deals with its pedophile priests.

There are also major coincidences that might invalidate another novel not so well thought through, so balanced, and so understanding of humanity. And this is that, first, Maureen’s brother, the well-respected and influential Monsignor Leo, turns out himself to be an abusive priest; and that, second, Maureen refers Father Docherty to a friend who has lost a son to suicide, and whose suicide note refers directly to Monsignor Leo. Moreover, it refers to another victim of the priest, and then Sarah Fagan confesses to Father Cocherty that her antagonism toward the Church was prompted by her own victimization as a child. Which was also at the hands of Monsignor Leo.

And so, finally, we understand why all these separate characters have been brought together, why we have been moved back and forth in time to establish their victimization, and why they all three see in Father Cocherty not only a way to achieve justice, but also a means to absolve themselves of their embarrassment and their guilt.

But once these coincidences are in play, the even-handedness of the author, the intelligence and decency of Father Cocherty, and the fair pursuit of justice results in a rich and powerful novel about pedophilia and the Catholic Church’s role in defending the indefensible. As The Times of London review said, the novel is “an impressive panorama…a convincing argument for the power of fiction to get under the skin of a great contemporary controversy.”

And yet, there are critics, like Randy Boyagoda in The New York Times, who found Father Docherty “not especially interesting, for he rarely feels genuinely unsure of himself,” but is fascinated by the combative and doubting Sarah Fagan, a significant but peripheral character. He identifies with the psychological pain of her victimization and her subsequent move from a convent life and a teaching life to becoming a cab driver. But like many people, he finds it difficult to relate to those facing spiritual challenges.

The tone of this book is of regret that this pedophilia occurred and that the Church defended the guilty priests at the expense of losing some of their faithful and, worse, much of their reputation as a defender of the poor and the innocent. Like the author himself, Father Docherty still loves the mission of a Church established by Christ, even as he faults the men who fear the Church will lose its reputation if it acknowledges the evil being committed under its own roof.

This is as balanced a treatment of this subject as I could have imagined. It is about men and women, and about priests and cardinals, once the evil is revealed, acting for what they think is good. And if I wondered how the author was going to finish this story, how he was going to resolve this confrontation of good and evil, I was completely satisfied.

For the climax is not about the results of the final confrontation between Father Docherty and the cardinal. It is about the internal life of the priest himself. Yes, we learn the outcome of the legal struggle, but the novel concentrates, wisely I think, on the internal impact on the mind of the priest. For this priest still believes that “if you do this to one of the least of my brethren, you do it to me.”

Keneally has tackled many subjects in a long literary career that covers 36 novels. And nearly every novel has a richness that has earned him a noteworthy reputation. Indeed, he has become one of my favorite authors, not least because we share the same perspective on both human failings and human redemption. But this work also hits closer to home for me, because it concerns spiritual failings and spiritual redemption. (September, 2019)

A Legacy of Spies, by John le Carre

This 2017 work has a wonderful opening, offering just the perspective, just the framework, that has always fascinated me. A retired spy, Peter Guillam, living in France, is summoned to London. Because certain lawyers are challenging a decision he and his superiors made a generation ago during the Cold War, a decision that resulted in the death at the Berlin Wall of one of their operatives, Alec Leamas, plus an innocent girl, Elizabeth Gold. The lawyers are acting for the two children of those victims.

What I loved so much is this perspective of a mature narrator reviewing a more innocent past, and seeing that past in a new light. Often a more ironic and more introspective light. And in doing so here, le Carre is also revisiting the climax of his first successful espionage novel, A Spy Came in from the Cold. This involved the British penetration of the Soviet and East German spy apparatus, a splendid accomplishment for those times. And that early novel is a highlight of the author’s career, just as the espionage story was the same for Guillam’s career.

But now Guillam also sees the challenge to this past escapade as a challenge to the legitimacy of his entire career. Whereas the new generation sees only the dark side of that operation, and these children of the two victims are seeking justice for the death of their respective parents.

Such questioning is a frequent theme in the author’s other espionage novels. Indeed, his hero Guillam, expresses his own reservations near the end of this tale: “How much of our human feeling can we dispense with in the name of freedom, would you say, before we cease to feel either human or free?” As a former spy himself, a member of the British Secret Service that is called here the Circus, le Carre has long felt that bringing forward the dark side of espionage is a legitimate way to portray his former profession.

The problem for me is that much of the novel involves flashbacks to memorable events of the Cold War. For Guillam seeks to recall those past events in order to justify them to himself before he faces any tribunal. But the problem is that many of the details of the operation are introduced through official reports of the World War II era, a technique that may help Guillam recall the past but which have no perspective, and which, each time, slows the dramatic flow of the those events.

The result is that we have lost the perspective of the present evaluating the distant past. Instead, the past is evaluating the past. And as Guillam attempts to remember the details of his past effort that is now being challenged, there is a further complication. Because the operation and its aftereffects were quite complicated, and are not easy to follow

This is Le Carre’s 24th novel, most of them espionage novels. And he is 85 years old. One senses that this may be his last such novel, and that he may have used his first spy novel as a crutch to recreate once again the world that he was so much a part of.

One wonders, indeed, if he may also be poking us in the rib, as if to say: here’s another look at that early novel that you were not aware of. But one must also say that this latest work has the intellectual and moral depth that one expects from a le Carre novel. What it lacks is the dramatic tension as the discovery of the operation’s deaths become known. There is one surprise death, but, being in the past, it does not have a major impact. And surely more of the self-doubt and guilt that Guillam now feels in the present should have also existed at the time of the operation. Instead, there may have been sorrow back then at the operation’s failure, but there is no suggested second-guessing of their actions by these gung-ho operatives.

This work offers a behind-the-scenes look at the author’s first successful novel. It thus deepens the moral evaluation of that novel by raising new doubts about the legitimacy of our heroes’ actions. What it also reflects is an elderly author revisiting his past, and finding new depths to explore. As Robert McCrum says in the Guardian: “’Le Carre’s new novel displays a grand old man of English letters conducting a masterclass in the genre he has made his own.”

If this is the last of le Carre’s espionage novels, it is a good way to go out. Even if it lacks intense drama, it probes the impact of a major event that has rested, quietly, within one man’s conscience. That is the legacy that this spymaster now acknowledges. (August, 2019)