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)

Advertisements

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)

Stern Men, by Elizabeth Gilbert

This 2000 work is a remarkable first novel that I have heard little about. It recreates the life of lobstermen on two rival islands off the coast of Maine. It is particularly notable for its casual, underwritten style. And is further notable for breaking a traditional rule of fiction—show, don’t tell. For the novel begins by describing the history of the two islands, Fort Niles and Courne Haven, then the history of their local lobster industry, including life on the lobster boats, and continues by introducing the rivalry among families of the two islands. This creates the novel’s initial tension, as the lobstermen on Fort Niles are more independent, while those on Courne Haven are more collaborative.

The novel first introduces Mary Thomas, the mother of the novel’s main character, Ruth Thomas. Mary was “adopted” by the wealthy Ellis family on Fort Niles to serve as an aide to one of their daughters. But after Mary marries and has Ruth, she leaves the island and never returns. Ruth, who does not know why her mother has vanished, is taken in by the neighboring Pommeroys. But it is then decided that this girl be exposed “to something other than lobster fishermen, alcoholism, ignorance, and cold weather.” And so Ruth is sent away, against her will, to a private high school in Delaware with support from the Ellis family. Upon returning, however, as a determined and smart young woman, she insists that Fort Niles is her true home. And as she tells Mrs. Pommeroy, she will refuse to discuss with Mr. Lanford Ellis anything further about her future, because from now on, “I’m not going to do a single thing with my life that the Ellises want me to do. That’s my plan.”

She says this because she senses her life being overseen by the wealthy patriarch of Fort Niles, the elderly Mr. Ellis, who resides on the island only during the summer months. And she is not comfortable with her life being controlled by someone else. But what is she to do? She tries to ignore the possibility of becoming one of the stern men of the title, those uneducated youth of both islands who are able to earn a living only by the backbreaking work of dumping empty lobster traps into the ocean and then pulling them out weighted down with lobsters. (Stern in the title also suggests the attitude that these young island men need to survive their rough life, as well as deal, along with their captain, with the rival lobster boats from the other island.)

Nothing dramatic happens, however, among these lobster families to draw the reader into this book. What does so is the simple conversations that reveal their complex relationships. As a review in Mirabella says, “the novel is Emersonian in its clarity and Austenian in its sly social observations.”

So what does draw the reader on is the humanity of these islanders, and the relationships that develop even within their frequent rivalries. Plus, the author’s unobtrusive style. As a result, it is like dropping in on various colorful Maine characters, such as Ruth’s taciturn and rigid father Stan, called Greedy Number Two for the intensity of his lobster hauling; Angus Adams, her father’s crusty pal, called Greedy Number One; Simon Adams, called the Senator, who fears the ocean but wishes to establish a local museum of natural history; Rhonda Pommeroy, a widow and amateur beautician who takes in Ruth and is her best pal; and a persistent Cal Cooley, a toady to Mr. Ellis.

And so, it is the casual relationships among these interesting characters that draw the reader on. For example, it begins with the lobstermen of the two islands. The tension mounts when some drop their lobster traps into an area claimed by a lobsterman from the other island. After which the rivalries become personal.

Along with the wit of both the author and Ruth as they deal with these rivalries., our main curiosity is about whether this young woman will find her true vocation, and whether it will be on the island—or elsewhere, as Mr. Ellis seems to encourage. We have hopes for her, however, when she declares at one point, “Watch me! Watch me, world! Look out, baby!” She surely seems capable, if only she finds herself.

But the author introduces another level of reality, along with the mulishness of these Maine residents; and it is through her dialogue. For both men and women use scatological and irreverent exclamations that emphasize their homey, down-to-earth attitude, an attitude that reflects little value being given to education. Such as that which Ruth has received, with the aid of Mr. Ellis.

Moreover, the author also observes her characters, as I said, with a certain wit, and this helps to keep the reader at a distance. Which is not unlike how Ruth’s witty conversation often helps her to control her dealings with her flighty father, the supporting Mrs. Pomeroy, the persistent Cal Cooley, the imposing and elderly Lanford Ellis, and her rediscovered mother, as well as with the stubborn Senator Adams, the persistent and haughty pastor Toby Wishnell, and with his nephew Owney, in whom she sees the possibility of love—and another reason to remain on the island of Fort Niles.

Finally, in a strange Epilogue, Ruth achieves her dreams. I call it strange, because we do not follow her life as she achieves personal fulfillment. Presumably, the author feels she has already established the characteristics of Ruth that make this possible. And as a bonus, there is even a small surprise for the reader when Ruth agrees at last to meet the domineering Mr. Ellis to discuss not just the future, but their future.

Gilbert presents here the complexities of a simple life, and the fragility of depending on a single occupation. And fills these two islands with colorful characters whose narrow view of life limits them. Except, it does not limit Ruth, who is both smart and feisty. In fact, we see her as the hope of a new generation. And at the end of the novel, many islanders seem to realize this as well.

While the subject of Gilbert’s Eat, Pray, Love never drew me to that well-known work, I thoroughly enjoyed The Signature of All Things, and this first novel now makes me still more interested in Gilbert’s fiction. (August, 2019)

The Force, by Don Winslow

I have never read a novel quite like this 2017 work. A police novel so vivid, so cynical, so hard-boiled, so honest, and so brutal. The Force is the Manhattan North Special Task Force, part of the New York City Police Department, which means it covers Upper Manhattan including Harlem. The story centers on Sergeant Denny Malone, a decorated 18-year veteran, a tough Irishman who rules his domain like a king. A king with an iron fist.

“The people,” he says, “don’t know what it takes sometimes to keep them safe and it’s better that they don’t. They may think they want to know, they may say they want to know, but they don’t.”

This is the story of why they don’t.

We meet Denny on the first page as he is locked up by the Feds. The novel then becomes the story of how this honest, idealistic cop became a dirty cop. How he became dirty as a result of the race war, the turf war, and the drug war, between the blacks and the Dominicans of Harlem. How he kept the peace among those gangs by looking the other way at times, accepting money from them at times, and in one case convincing himself it made sense to steal millions of dollars in confiscated heroin. He justified it by calling it financial security for his three-man team in case their corruption was discovered; otherwise, it would disappear into the system, including into the pockets of people they reported to.

We also meet the other two members of his team, Phil Russo, who is Italian, and Bill Montague, who is big and is black. The three love each other, believe in each other, and back each other up. There is no racial or ethnic element here. They regard one another as true brothers.

The first half of this novel sets up their own relationship, an often difficult relationship with their superiors, and the dangers policemen confront when dealing with violent gangs who are dueling for control of the Force’s territory. This section is a powerful portrait of police work. It does not advance the story, but deepens the roles of both the policemen and the gangs. It especially shows how, step by step, arrogant policemen like Malone, Russo and Big Monty can become corrupt.

Once Denny has been arrested, we learn how the wheels of justice work. He is pressured to betray everyone he has dealt with, beginning with insignificant street people, but also extending to both gang leaders with whom he has kept the peace and to other policemen who have been corrupted by the system. He is especially pressured to betray his partners, Russo and Montague—a betrayal that at first he refuses to make. But more pressure is put on him, threatening his family. Making him realize that if he gives in to that will hate himself. And at this point, a moral level is introduced. Leaving the reader to see both the good and the evil in this trio of men. And perhaps in all policemen. Which realization brings home the toughness of their job. And which appears to be a major point of this novel.

Once this point is reached, however, Winslow’s ending for his novel becomes less convincing. For Denny is told that a tape exists of a cop shooting a black man in the back, and if this is released, there will be a citywide revolt. And since he knows the drug lord who has the tape, he is told that if he obtains it, he will allowed back on the Force. But if he fails, public riots will spread across the city. And then to other cities. But is it really believable that Denny’s bosses will give him the responsibility to resolve this far greater problem? For civic leaders to ask this arrogant cop to save their city from destruction? To become a hero again? This seems to me to be too big a role for one man, even for this policeman we have identified with.

And, yes, he does achieve a kind of peace. But it is at a high cost. In the novel’s terms, he is allowed to vent too much. And in his own terms, he unexpectedly turns on his superiors, and then risks all to get revenge on the last rival drug lord. Whereupon, despairing of his own future, with justice hovering behind him at every turn, the author gives him an easy out that is too much for me. It is just too neat. It provides an ending to his story, but it is more an ending achieved by the author than one achieved by Denny himself.

But despite such a major caveat, this is a powerful novel. What gives it its richness and its depth is its awareness of morality and of justice. Not simply whether the end justifies the means. It also asks: as a representative of justice, being a policeman, should I be doing what I am doing? Am I allowed to administer justice, such as shoot evil people? Such as take their bribes? Such as steal their goods? And this comes home to roost when Denny is asked to go against the policeman’s code and betray his fellow officers. This is when he finally touches the guilt that his conscience has allowed him to ignore—the appeal to betray his brothers in arms.

Another richness not to be ignored is the smart dialogue that establishes the relationships among the different levels of policemen, as well as their relationships with the different level of gangsters. These policemen also deal frankly with their own conflicting interests. They even convert an innocent Jewish rookie like Dave Levin to their illicit and immoral ways. But most of all, this trio of detectives commit to each other. Until they are tempted not to. By weighing their family’s freedom against that of their partners.

What makes this novel stand out is the tension among the policemen, and with their superiors, the street people, and the gangs. As Janet Maslin says in her New York Times review: “[Winslow] paints a realistic tableau of police privilege, pragmatism, racial bluntness, street smarts, love of partners, and loyalty to what they call the Job.” She also writes: “Cops, gangsters, drug dealers, high-end madams: They all turn out to be in business together.”

This novel certainly prompts me to seek out more Don Winslow novels. From warlords to drug lords to society’s victims, he has captured elsewhere the underside of American society and earned many literary laurels. How have I missed reading his work until now? Was it because I associated the author’s name with that naval hero, back in the day, of comic strips, radio serials and, movies? (August, 2019)

Midnight in Europe, by Alan Furst

This 2014 novel is a fast read, and a highly polished and professional work of espionage. But it has little depth, No, for example, moral issues. Or psychological issues. And no real danger confronts its hero, Christian Ferrar, a Spanish exile who is a lawyer at a distinguished French law firm in Paris.

What this novel does achieve is an effective portrait of pre-war Europe. This is a strong point of most of Furst’s novels, and here he focuses on the Spanish Republic’s efforts to obtain anti-tank canon and artillery shells for use against the more powerful armaments employed by the forces of Francisco Franco in the Spanish Civil War.

Ferrar’s two assignments are finding the canon and the specific shells that fit the Republic’s older weapons, and then arranging their delivery to the Republican forces in Spain. Which involves fast-moving but routine events, requiring Ferrar and his colleagues to ferret out the armaments from Eastern and Central Europe. Which also means he must deal with idealists and gangsters, and with arms traders and aristocrats, plus Max de Lyon, a mysterious arms merchant. Encounters with them also capture the 1930’s atmosphere, as they range from shady Paris nightclubs to the city’s plush apartments, as well as from a brothel in Istanbul to a dockyard in Poland,

But one of the novel’s problems is that there is little linkage among these events; they simply present hurdles to be overcome. That is, there is no building of suspense, no solving of one problem that leads to the next. Nor are there serious villains who offer threats to Ferrar’s two missions. The only problems are getting control of the armaments and making the delivery.

But, of course, such missions turn out to be not that simple. In one case, the team loses control of the cannon shipment and must take over a train in Poland to deliver it. In another, the shells are found in Russia, but Stalin’s policy refuses to sell the shells to his supposed allies, the leftists in Spain. And so, after the shells are found, they must be stolen, hidden on an ancient steamer, and then transported across the Black Sea and the Mediterranean. This sequence builds high drama as the novel draws to a close.

There are personal detours, of course, to flesh out Ferrar’s character and pique our interest. For example, he is a ladies man, and has at least three affairs during the course of his undercover work. He also has other responsibilities at his French law firm that fill out his life as a lawyer, but do not impact the search for armaments. At other intervals, Furst captures the atmosphere of European life, where people know that war is approaching but are not sure when and where. Still further atmosphere is created on a Paris-Berlin express train at night, on hectic car rides in Paris and Poland, and the climactic voyage through a storm and outrunning a patrol boat.

When in mood for a fast-paced thriller, another tale by Furst would be welcome. But despite the atmosphere, these works are not literature, and they lack the psychological probing and moral complexity that is a trademark of the best espionage novels. (July, 2019)

Nostalgia, by Dennis McFarland

This beautiful 2013 novel about the horrors of the American Civil War should be on the shelves of every reader who is interested in serious literature about that conflict. McFarland offers here the story of Summerfield Hayes, a well-off youth who has just lost his parents and who abandons his only sister, beloved Sarah, to enlist in the Northern army. He says it is his only course if he is to serve the nation he loves. What he does not tell her is that he is also troubled by “the wrong kind of dreams” about her.

And war, of course, brings its own kind of dreams, surrealistic dreams of confusion and exaggeration, and disturbing dreams of terror and pain. And private Hayes will discover this during his first battle, the three-day Wilderness campaign of 1864 in which both armies endure major losses but in which the North begins its final victorious drive into Virginia.

But if reality is distorted by war, the structure of the novel reflects an equivalent distortion. We are introduced to Hayes on the battlefield, bleeding, dirty, and hungry, and with no sense of time or where he is. And feeling abandoned by his colleagues, his mind escapes into his past. He recalls early baseball exploits and then relives his life in the Brooklyn home he now shares with his bossy and sensible sister. After which, he recalls his fellow soldiers before the battle, and then refocuses on his struggle to flee the battlefield.

At this point, the reader is as lost as Hayes is. Where is this novel headed? Especially when we suddenly shift to a field hospital, where Hayes joins many new characters and where he is so traumatized, by an experience that we have not fully witnessed, that he cannot speak. But as his hospital life becomes both tender and vivid, the reader feels the beginnings of solid earth under his feet. Which becomes even more solid when his memories return to the battlefield and he again confronts the confusion of fog and smoke and noise, the moaning wounded, and the still images of death littering the ground. Then he is truly overwhelmed by trauma when a shell burst renders him senseless—just as he kills a horribly wounded colleague who is begging to die—and he discovers he cannot talk.

Indeed, the title, Nostalgia, suggests such trauma, which we now call the PTS syndrome but which back then made its victims candidates for an asylum. The title also, however, has another meaning in this novel. An unspoken meaning. For the word’s Greek roots are a blend of “return home” and “pain.”

It is when we move back and forth between Hayes alone on the surrealistic battlefield and silent in his hospital bed that the power of this novel truly blooms. In sharp contrast are, first, the loneliness and desperation of Hayes in the field, and, second, the humanity of the patients, doctors, and wardens in the hospital, some of them cruel but most sympathetic to his internal suffering. Most sympathetic of all is a mysterious, bearded man called Walt.

The Wilderness Battle cost up to 30,000 lives on the two sides, and one senses the brutality of that three-day battle as Hayes reels lost and alone through smoke-filled fields and beneath burning trees. Separated from his regiment, he fears being called a deserter and shot. But all he encounters is men with bloody limbs, men crying out in pain, and men firing blindly at an unseen enemy. He even hallucinates an entire field of dead men rising up and charging the enemy breastworks that confront them.

But literary work is based on human interaction, and if one follows McFarland reluctantly away from the battlefront, one soon becomes immersed in the hospital scenes. Men lie there, still crying out in pain, demanding morphine for amputated limbs, with some doctors sympathetic but one suspicious of Hayes because he has no visible wounds. This is when Walt comes to Hayes’ aid. “You’ve been badly harmed….But I think you’re hurt is a particular way. You strike me in your silence as someone who [awakened] from a terrible dream, then looked down and saw the scar it had left on you…I mean to be your friend…to set you straight when you’re selling yourself short.” Indeed, Walt will later penetrate Hayes’ silence and get him to speak.

With help from Walt and a sympathetic doctor, Hayes is released from the hospital and allowed to return home in order to recuperate. Nostalgia in part, remember, means return home. At first, I was reluctant to follow him there, for I felt the final meaning of the novel was to be found near or on the battlefield. But no, this is to be a novel about the release from pain. Of which there are different kinds.

Then Hayes and his sister Sarah confront their own feelings (nostalgia also means pain), and why Hayes went off to war. Whereupon, Walt arrives again, and helps Sarah to understand her brother. He talked, she says, “about the curative effects of love. He said love’s like truth, that no matter what form it takes, not matter how haplessly it’s expressed, one must try to see to the heart of it, and forgive any of the ugly bits.” And just as he once talked of people “ having more than one side” when talking about a nation split over state’s rights and slavery, Walt means this double vision to apply to human feelings as well. All of which culminates in a beautiful scene at a ballpark that brought tears to my eyes, as Hayes finds a new fulfillment and the personal peace that war had tried to destroy.

This novel has brought unexpected subject matter to the McFarland canon. He is an author I have long admired, especially for his explorations of family tensions. He does so again here, but it is hidden in much more dramatic subject matter. And one can easily miss that aspect of Hayes and his sister’s relationship. Instead, one is swept up by this 19th century tale of warfare and its repercussions, a tale that is vividly told. In fact, as David Goodwillie wrote in The New York Times, “McFarland’s description of 19th century life, from the intricacies of musket warfare to the formative years of our national pastime, are stunning in their lyricism and detail.” He concludes: “Nostalgia is a perfect Civil War novel for our time, or any time.”

Amen. This novel equates national tension with family tension. And the resolution to both is found in our humanity. In our love. (July, 2019)

The Miracle, by John L’Heureux

Father Paul LeBlanc is handsome and charismatic, but also troubled. Not because he questions the war in Vietnam, papal infallibility, and the primacy of individual conscience, all of which puts him in conflict with the Boston hierarchy. Rather, it is because he cannot commit himself to his vocation, nor establish a true relationship with the God he serves. And so as this 2002 novel begins, he is transferred to a small church on the New Hampshire coast; and, forced to admit his troubled vocation, he appeals to God. Since he cannot find himself to love others, including God, he prays that God will love him—and says he will do anything in return if God will only do so.

And then, the housekeeper at his new rectory, Rose, sees her daughter Mandy die of an overdose. But, refusing to accept her daughter’s death, she prays for her to survive. In fact, the church’s dying pastor, Father Moriarty, sees her alive in a dream. And she does survive. Which intrigues Father Paul. What did Rose do? Is it a miracle? He wants to deny it, but cannot. And he decides it isn’t the miracle he needs to understand; it’s Rose.

L’Heureux has more on his mind here than if there was a miracle. He explores what this presumed miracle means to others. Father Paul, especially, needs to know how Rose revived her daughter. What capability for miracles does Rose have within her? And his fascination with Rose turns this novel toward the bond between human love and divine love. And about the doubts his new attraction to Rose raises in his faith and in his worthiness as a priest.

Meanwhile, a parishioner, Anna Kathryn Malley is herself attracted to the handsome Father Paul. She even sees him as a “man she might marry one day.” When she reveals that she has never been able to commit herself to a man, he realizes it is his own problem as well: human relationships. But a priest need not commit himself to such relationships, she says, whereas her life has been one of continual failure at them. Eventually, Father Paul realizes that this good person needs help. And he is a priest. And as each begins to understand the other’s failure, they begin exploring their mutual need. Whereupon, the reader wonders where this new relationship is going.

Meanwhile, Mandy dies again, irony of ironies, and seems to be a victim of a miracle gone wrong. Now begins the heart of this novel. Father Paul is drawn to comfort the bereaving mother. And finds that this is expressed in a lust for her. For if he can possess her, he thinks, he will finally understand that miracle. “And is it lust,” he ssks, “to want to understand a miracle?” She, in turn, has long looked upon this attractive priest with equal fervor. And so by letting his body fulfill itself sexually, he relates to another person. But if he has fulfilled his role as a man, he is drowning in guilt.

In the morning, both are sorry, but there are no regrets. Only guilt. Whereupon, Anna Kathryn helps Father Paul realize that while God will forgive him for this sin, the priest cannot forgive himself. And when he raises new doubts about his vocation, Father Moriarty, his own body betrayed by ALS, suggests to Father Paul “you became a priest because you wanted God’s approval. But God doesn’t need you. Or me.”

Father Paul, however, cannot shake his guilt, or his lust. In fact, in his dreaming of a kiss, Rose turns into Anna Kathryn. Is it now Anna Kathryn he wishes to possess? For the rest of the novel, Father Paul is torn between his desire for the two women and how this conflicts with his wish to remain a priest. What is remarkable is the understanding of the priesthood in this novel, such as one’s responsibilities to God, to the faithful, to fellow priests, and to oneself. This comes across most beautifully in Father Paul’s conversations with his supervisor, Monsignor Glynn, and with Father Moriarty. “Tell me to stop being a priest,” he says to Glynn. “I’ve come a long way from wanting to be a saint. Isn’t that that the next step?”

Both priests are sympathetic to Father Paul and his internal travail, but both treat him, first, as a fellow human being trying to deny his own humanity. They remind him that he has a relationship with God, yes, but it is a relationship that he needs to have, not one that God needs to have with him.

These priests are themselves human, not representatives of God, or of their Church. They fully understand the weaknesses and uncertainties of being human. And L’Heureux surely presents such effective portraits because he himself was once a priest. Who left the priesthood following the upheaval that Vatican II brought to the Catholic Church. Indeed, what this novel suggests is that such modernization did not go far enough in acknowledging the humanity of both priests and the faithful.

Meanwhile, Father Paul and Anna Kathryn are drawn closer together. At the beach, he says, “Tell me about your boyfriends.” And she: “Tell me about God.” Later, she invites him on a picnic to tell him that she loves him. But at the key moment, both are frozen speechless. And later, she writes, “You are incapable of happiness, and I incapable of living without it.”

Father Paul realizes that “his idea of God was simply egoism turned inside out.” Thus, “extinguishing the self to make it perfect meant getting rid of everything human.” This is accompanied by the one melodramatic scene in the novel, a scene in which Father Paul convinces himself of one thing while doing another. It is not entirely convincing, but it does lead to him facing reality, and recalling the earlier advice of the dying Father Moriarty: “Try loving somebody besides yourself for once.”

L’Heureux winds up this story of the three priests and the two women somewhat poetically, as each reaches a self-realization. Father Paul, says, “I don’t want to love God, any God. I want to love someone.” While Rose decides that having sex, including with a priest, “was like getting even with God,” presumably for the loss of her daughter. And Father Moriarty “reaches up and his hand fades in darkness, and another hand grasps his. [And] this new…dark is more light than humankind can bear.”

In sum, this novel explores the link between faith and love, and how a crisis in one can lead to a crisis in the other. As Bruce Bower sums up in The New York Times, this is “a delicately nuanced portrait of recognizably human individuals making what they can of life.”

This reviewer needs to read more works by L’Heureux. (July, 2019)