With his first novel in four years, Joseph O’Connor returns with a powerful tale of resistance in My Father’s House. The Irish PEN Award winner has built a reputation as one of Ireland’s greatest living storytellers on the strength of his historical character portraits, and My Father’s House is another deep dive into the past that vividly depicts war-torn Europe and those within it.
Our setting is Nazi-occupied Rome in late 1943, as seen through the eyes of a wide-ranging cast of characters, but concentrated predominantly on the experience of Irish priest Hugh O’Flaherty. While the Italian capital has been overtaken by German forces, O’Flaherty’s residence within the independent state of the Vatican City gives him a unique opportunity to provide an escape route for innocent civilians fleeing persecution by Hitler’s army.
Our setting is Nazi-occupied Rome in late 1943, as seen through the eyes of a wide-ranging cast of characters, but concentrated predominantly on the experience of Irish priest Hugh O’Flaherty.
In addition to the wrath of the Nazi invaders, led by SS Officer Paul Hauptmann, O’Flaherty faces surprisingly fierce resistance within the walls of the Vatican State to his efforts, which culminate in a daring rescue mission on Christmas Eve.
As a significant historical figure whose heroic work during this period led to countless saved lives and earned O’Flaherty his famous moniker as the Scarlet Pimpernel of the Vatican, it would be easy to fall into the trap of a saint-like portrayal that feels more pedantic than real; but this is a trope which O’Connor skilfully avoids. The author’s depiction of O’Flaherty is nuanced, and reveals an internal struggle which lends credibility and credence to the remarkable sacrifice which the priest undertakes, underpinning the miraculous nature of this struggle against the odds.
In addition to our main narrative, some of the most engaging writing throughout the novel comes by way of fictional radio excerpts, diary extracts and newspaper interviews, as O’Connor introduces a colourful lineup of characters who each tell their story with singular voices and distinct perspectives to flesh out the context, and provide a rich backdrop into the bargain.
The Italian capital itself feels as alive as any of the figures we meet within these pages, with its streets navigated in such detail throughout the novel’s many missions as to feel lived-in and whole, gifting us a transportive quality that only the very best historical fiction can hope to achieve.
Climaxing in an equally emotional and thrilling payoff, My Father’s House does justice to a story that deserves wider recognition and an introduction to a new generation. Thanks to the impressive levels of depth and perspective achieved within these pages, it should do just that, and bring this incredible story of sacrifice to a fresh audience. Demonstrating the mastery of Joseph O’Connor once again, My Father’s House is one not to miss for bookworms and historophiles alike in 2023.
Words: Andrew Lambert