I am shamefacedly admitting I knew nothing about the inspiration for Irish writer Joseph O’Connor’s new novel – Monsignor Hugh O’Flaherty, a Priest based at the Vatican at the time of Rome’s takeover by the Nazis who was responsible for the saving of some 6,500 lives through the Escape Line, which ran from the neutral Vatican City, housing and hiding soldiers, escaped Prisoners Of War, Jews and others the Nazi regime took against.
This is a fictional account which leads up to a mission, known as a Rendimento, planned for Christmas Eve 1943. O’Flaherty was supported by a group who met on the pretext of choral singing and some of these are interviewed in the early 1960s and their accounts of what happened runs alongside a third person narrative. O’Connor writes beautifully with multi-sensory descriptions being layered to build a picture of events and the tale he tells here is involving and often thrilling. He seems more at pains to ensure we know we are reading fiction than the average historical novelist. I might be wrong here but from a quick glance at the true events online I think he has changed the identity of the main threat to the mission, a German officer who viewed O’Flaherty as his nemesis. If this is so, this fictional creation allows the author greater freedom in portraying the evil within this man.
Monsignor O’Flaherty is the lifeblood of this novel but I think I might have appreciated further fleshing out of some of the supporting characters within the choir. From their interviews I wasn’t always clear who was talking and this narrative structure removed them slightly from the action although I do acknowledge that anonymity at this time was a prerequisite for survival.
I was impressed by this strong novel but I must admit that it didn’t quite get me the way the author’s evocative recreation of a Victorian theatrical world inhabited by Bram Stoker in 2019’s “Shadowplay” did which made it into my Top 5 Books of that year.
My Father’s House will be published on 26th January by Harvill Secker. Many thanks to the publishers and Netgalley for the advance review copy.