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)

The Daughters of Mars, by Thomas Keneally

Keneally is one of my favorite contemporary authors, and this 2012 novel is one of his best. It offers a broad historic canvas, and through the experiences of two nurses it explores the blend of pain, dedication, and heroism triggered by war, in this case World War I.

The nurses are volunteer Australian nurses, Sally and Naomi Durance, who in 1915 are sent off to Europe to treat wounded soldiers on hospital ships and in hospital tents. And they quickly learn the harrowing effect of war on men’s lives, a major point of this novel. But first we get to know the nurses themselves. Naomi is more aggressive, Sally, whom we get closer to, less so. Prior to the war, Sally has stayed home to nurse, while Naomi has gone to the big city to serve its more prestigious doctors.

The two sisters are united, most strongly, by a single incident that troubles Sally, their having collaborated in the mercy killing of their mother who was suffering unmercifully as she neared death. And while they do not regret her death, they do have a guilty conscience about their plotting—and this has separated them. For whenever they are close, it forces them to acknowledge what they planned together.

Two amazing scenes enliven the first 150 pages. The first is on a hospital ship, as its nurses and doctors receive the first wave of horribly injured soldiers from the battlefields at Gallipoli. The second is the torpedoing of a converted troopship, and its dramatic sinking while soldiers and nurses cling to drifting lifeboats. But as the two scenes convey the horror of war, this shared experience by Sally and Naomi also brings the sisters closer together.

After Sally and Naomi reconcile, they are separated by the vagaries of war when Naomi breaks discipline and is sent back to Australia. This, however, allows Keneally to broaden his canvas, to include more of the home front as well as more seaboard life. When they eventually rejoin, it is in France.

Something interesting happens in the center section of this novel. We move back and forth between Sally and Naomi as they become nurses in France and move closer to the front. But in dramatic tension, in the movement of the plot, nothing really happens. Each gets closer to a man, each becomes gradually aware that a new satisfaction may come from such a relationship. But nothing happens that makes the reader ask what these characters will do next. And yet, this section of the novel is continually fascinating—a tribute, I think, to the skill of this novelist. One reason is that Keneally brings to life the details of that era, along with the uncertainty of warfare and the physical pain that engulfs the nursing stations.

As Sally and Naomi develop their relationships with two men, however, the reader does wonder whether they will find happiness with these two figures at the end of the novel. Because this is a serious work of literature, and given that men are being maimed and killed all along the battlefront, the fate of these lovers is uncertain. It also becomes morally complex when Keneally raises a matter of conscience, and of justice. For Naomi’s lover, Ian, is imprisoned after he has volunteered as a Quaker to serve in a medical unit to save men, but then refuses an order to take up a rifle and kill men.

One problem I had was differentiating among the various nurses. Each has her own characteristics, but they do not sufficiently motivate their actions. And so I found it difficult to separate them whenever they reappeared on the scene. Perhaps they would have been better individualized if they had interacted more, influencing each other, especially Sally and Naomi. Matron Mitchie stands out because she did exactly that, as well as because of the injury she suffers.

The same difficulty applies to the doctors and soldiers with whom the nurses form attachments. They exist primarily in their relationship to a particular nurse, a nurse whose own existence is not separate enough from her fellow nurses.

Just before the ending, Keneally hints at how he will handle the fate of the two sisters. The issue is the fate of their mother as she suffered her excruciating death. And Keneally does not tell us the cause of that death. Was it a natural death, or a mercy killing? And which of the sisters is telling the truth? The lack of a clear answer hints at what is to come.

Then we do come to that ending. Shades of the French lieutenant. There are two endings. We have a choice. Who will live and who will die? The author appears to leave it to the reader. Did he want to have his literary cake and eat it, too? I cannot decide. Both endings are beautifully written. And one wants to be convinced by both. But is Keneally being fair? Is this even a matter or artistic integrity? Bottomline, it is as if Keneally has decided that a major character must die if his novel is to have literary stature, but he cannot decide who it is to be.

Overall, this is a marvelous novel. It is a portrait of two sisters, primarily, but it is also a portrait of war and even more of the nursing profession in war. One lives with these characters off the shores of Gallipoli, then in lifeboats plunging with the sea, and finally moving back and forth through the mud and poppy fields of France.

And yet what one remembers here are not the individual nurses, except Sally and Naomi. What one remembers are the nurses’ loyalty to their profession, as they physically lift and carry these soldiers, wash and bandage their wounds, fed them or inject morphine, cheer them with talk or watch over them in sleep. It is indeed a marvelous achievement to put the reader in the casualty wards of this suffering and recuperating army so far from home.

Indeed, one should note that this war is vividly created without one battle scene. The war is made real by its wounded and its dead. And one may surely argue that this justifies the significance of this novel. That while it lives through the adventures of the two sisters, its literary stature emerges from its exposure of the sufferings of innocent youth.

Keneally was 77 when he published this novel. May he continue to explore our humanity within the sufferings that life brings. (September, 2015)