Book review - My Father’s House

Joseph O'Connor's Shadowplay won novel of the year at the 2019 Irish book awards and was shortlisted for the Costa Novel award. He also writes stage and screenplays, short stories, nonfiction and radio diaries. This formidable talent for writing across genres is reflected in his masterly 10th novel, which should reap similar plaudits.

Based on a true story, and several real characters, My Father’s House opens in September 1943 with wartime Rome as its memorable backdrop. The city is occupied by German forces and the Gestapo commander, Paul Hauptmann, rules with an iron fist. (His torture chambers are housed in the former German Cultural Institute, “his favoured interrogation tool is the blowtorch”.) The one place he can’t control is the Vatican City, deemed a neutral, independent country. It harbours diplomats, as well as priests, several of whom dedicate themselves to helping Jews and escaped allied prisoners get out of Rome.

A proud Kerryman, Monsignor Hugh O’Flaherty is the leader of one such escape line. Its agents call themselves the Choir, and meet in a former hospice for fever victims in the right arm of St Peter’s Basilica. Under cover of music they explore plans and escape routes, false names and addresses as they prepare for a major mission, codenamed the Rendimento. (Hauptmann and his Nazi thugs are closing in.)

O’Connor has assembled a wonderful cast, which includes Contessa Giovanna Landini, mourning her husband; Delia Kiernan, wife of the senior Irish diplomat to the Vatican, a singer with the voice of an angel; Marianna de Vries, a freelance journalist; Enzo Angelucci, an Italian newsagent, and Major Sam Derry, an escaped British POW.

His sources include O’Flaherty’s unpublished papers, letters, diaries, telegrams and journalism, as well as a joke borrowed from the late Dave Allen. O’Connor’s own distinctive phrases are imbued with a gleeful irreverence: a cardinal is described as “a long drink of cross-eyed, buck-toothed misery if ever there was, he’d bore the snots off a wet horse”, wWhile a confident woman could “sell a double bed to the Reverend Mother”.

This is a literary thriller of the highest order. The incarnation of O’Flaherty, the Irish Oskar Schindler, is sublime. What often elevates a writer is compassion, and O’Connor has it in spades – paying tribute to the courage of those who resist tyranny. Beautifully crafted, his razor-sharp dialogue is to be savoured, and he employs dark humour to great effect. The plot twists keep on coming until the novel’s coda, where a final joyful conceit is revealed.

Originally published by The Observer