From one of our greatest living writers, a bold and timely novel about sin cloaked in sacrament, shame that enforces silence, and the courage of one priest who dares to speak truth to power.
Sent away from his native Australia to Canada due to his radical preaching against the Vietnam War, apartheid, and other hot button issues, Father Frank Docherty made for himself a satisfying career as a psychologist and monk. When he returns to Australia to lecture on the future of celibacy and the Catholic Church, he is unwittingly pulled into the lives of two people—a young man, via his suicide note, and an ex-nun—both of whom claim to have been sexually abused by a prominent monsignor.
As a member of the commission investigating sex abuse within the Church, and as a man of character and conscience, Docherty decides he must confront each party involved and try to bring the matter to the attention of both the Church and the secular authorities. What follows will shake him to the core and call into question many of his own choices.
This riveting, profoundly thoughtful novel is “the work of a richly experienced and compassionate writer [with] an understanding of a deeply wounded culture” (Sydney Morning Herald). It is an exploration of what it is to be a person of faith in the modern world, and of the courage it takes to face the truth about an institution you love.
SARAH FAGAN was driving a cab. Some might think her cab-driving a pathetic attempt to meet men. In fact, it was a genuine attempt to allow a recovery of her brain, which was depleted, and a revival of her spirit, which had been rendered numb from all that had happened to her.
Driving was an art, but it also allowed intellectual vacuity, plain rituals of conversation. And if Sarah did not want to converse on the issue of why a woman like her was driving a cab, she would say, “We’re all filling in for my husband, who has cancer.” The “we’re all” implied a tough family hanging together in a crisis; that she was not, therefore, in favor of being messed around by passengers. She suspected that a decision about whether she would stay in neutral gear for the rest of her life, or might pull herself out of it, would most probably arise not from conscious thought or frantic self-analysis, but with her brain muted by routine. Listening to and exchanging banalities with her passengers, she hoped she would hear some healing neutral words. She might then learn to live in the same room as the tiger, the flesh-tearing fury.
A Friday morning at Sydney Airport provided taxi drivers with lots of fares. The line of cabs was prodigious by seven o’clock, with a dozen ahead of her. But the stream of morning arrivals kept it moving, and as Sarah was a cabdriver more for the therapy of it than for sustenance she was unfazed by the wait.
When eventually the last cab in front of her had cleared off, Sarah’s fare proved to be a tall, lean man, studious-looking, in his late fifties or early sixties—you couldn’t tell in an age when even the old went to gymnasia and sweated themselves thin. This fellow hauled a modern suitcase on wheels and in his other hand carried a briefcase. The suitcase was not massively packed, nor the briefcase of the latest design. A sensible traveler, but neither a conventional businessman nor tourist. A chiropractor, she thought, or a health-shop owner.
“Good morning,” he said as she got out and came around the cab to watch him putting his bags briskly into the boot, whose lid she had released. When he was finished, he set out walking around the car to take the other front seat, as was the custom with Australian men of his age, a residual gesture of egalitarianism. It was only then he noticed she was a woman and was struck by doubt.
“What should I do?” he asked her in a level, earnest voice. “Would you like me to sit in the back?”
She told him it was his choice, he was the passenger. So, after weighing the matter, he took the front seat. She asked him where to, and he said Gladesville—he believed he knew the way, he said, since he used to live in the area. He mentioned a street. “We’ll work it out as we go,” he said.
She pulled out and asked him if it had been a good flight, and he said it had been passable—given the time change, he preferred to fly by day than by night. But he hadn’t had a choice this time.
Where had he come from?
“Vancouver,” he told her.
“Oh,” she said vaguely, because all points of departure were equal to her. She liked these conversations, but did not want to take on any of their weight. “They say it’s a little like Sydney,” she remembered to contribute.
“Yes,” he said, “it is like Sydney, and yet they’re both their own places. They’re like siblings, very much the same and very much different.”
It was what she wanted to hear. Something unchallenging, which still transcended plainness.
“So you’re pleased to be home.”
“Proud Australian boy,” he said. “Though I live in Canada.”
She asked when he was going back and he said in three weeks’ time. His mother had a few mobility problems, he said. She was old enough to warrant his coming to see her.
Did he live in Vancouver? No, he said. Ontario, over in the east. Flat country but very pleasant. She asked him what the winters were like and he laughed. “Unspeakable. Sometimes I think it’s amazing that any Canadian survived before 1900.” He shook his head. “And yet, when you live there you just take it as it comes. Pretty much the way Australians accept their summers.”
Apart from such superficial issues as geography and weather, she generally left her passengers free of inquiry. It was astonishing, however, how many would offer particulars without her asking. Humans were natural confessors, and she was sure it was this, rather than the sophistication of police forces, that landed many people in the criminal dock.
He said, “Things have certainly changed in Australia.”
“In what way?” she asked. She wondered if it was wise to ask.
“Well, it was all freckle-faced Celts and Anglo-Saxons when I was a kid. Now the faces are Asian, Middle Eastern. And women driving cabs. The old crustaceans around me when I was a kid wouldn’t have considered them safe enough drivers!”
“You haven’t seen it in Canada?”
“Not particularly. Well, yes. There’s an Ojibwe woman in Waterloo who drives for her husband because he’s got diabetes. You see, I live in a sort of big country town. But also . . . well, I always thought the Canadians a bit more progressive.” And then he laughed. “In a backwards sort of way.”
She said nothing.
“Are you driving for your husband?” he asked.
She did laugh at that, and was aware it wasn’t an entirely kindly laugh. She said, “Why would I need a taxi owner for a husband to make it all right for me to drive a cab?”
He held up a hand. “You’re quite right; forgive me. I’m a sexist brute. Women in Canada tell me I am all the time.”
“You can get cured of that, you know!” she said, a little tersely.
In the silence that followed she wondered idly if he was married. She was not going to ask. He asked her about the present Australian government, but he was treading water and she gave a simple answer, discontented with politicians in the Australian way that expects no prophets ever to emerge from the desert.
She went left beside Hyde Park, reached Chinatown, and crossed the Glebe Island Bridge. It was only when she turned into Rozelle that he recognized familiar landmarks on Victoria Road. “My father and uncle owned that pub,” he told her. “If I called it an old stamping ground, you’d asked me what I stamped on it. But at least I’m familiar with it.”
He had a weird sense of humor, she thought. She said, “We’re close now.” For some reason she said it for her own comfort. This one was just a notch too subtle for conversation. Whereas she could live with “my old stamping ground,” she found “I don’t know what I stamped on it” harder. She wanted clichés, not a smart-aleck expatriate who turned them on their head. “Not far,” she said, but again to reassure herself.
She had an opening to ask him what he did for a living, for she still couldn’t guess and she was certain he didn’t own pubs. She had a feeling the answer would be at least mildly interesting, but she resisted saying anything because it would allow him the right of a question in return.
The morning beamed down on her windscreen and she put on her sunglasses.
“Ah,” he said, “Sydney light.”
“Isn’t it just like Canadian light?” she asked.
“The light there on a bright cold day, twenty below freezing—it’s big honest light, too. The rays doubled up by reflections off the snow. So it’s like Sydney light but without the inconvenience of snow.”
She said, “The Canadians must appreciate you telling them that. I don’t think.”
He laughed. A low, short laugh. He was looking out of the window and drinking in what he could see of the suburbs and their shops and pubs, just like a returned, easily satisfied patriot. She took an exit and he was on familiar ground and could guide her.
“I don’t know what number it is,” he told her. “It’s a big sandstone place.”
They rolled along suburban streets and he watched schoolboys in cricket-style hats, brown shirts and shorts, and the little girls in their checked uniforms. At last he pointed to a nineteenth-century mansion that stood behind a reclusive, high-shrubbed, high-treed garden. She could see the Celtic cross at the apex of the facade and a smaller metal version above the front door. Convents sported such icons. So did monasteries. She felt a pulse of revulsion. The poisoned cross still boasting of its triumph over the suburb. Atop a smug garden and a smug antipodean sandstone mansion.
She punched the meter off and jabbed the button that released the boot.
“That’s fine. Father, Brother, whichever you are. The trip’s on me. Don’t forget your bag.” It would have been good to end it there and maintain functional, cold politeness. But she couldn’t. “Just get out, will you?” she told him.
He was mystified. “No,” he said earnestly, “the freeloading days for priests are gone. And they gave me taxi money especially for the airport.”
He pushed a fifty-dollar note towards her but she would not take it. She sat stiffly and clung to the wheel. He tucked the note into a recess between the two seats.
“I insist,” he murmured.
Eyes fixed ahead, she said, with a deliberately chosen profanity, “Just fuck off, will you? Just get your bag and go.”
She could see out of the corner of her eye that he was examining her face, as she fixed her gaze blankly on a couple of young mothers and their children across the street. She knew he was skimming through a number of options in his head—the job of a supposed general practitioner of the soul. Meanwhile, she both wanted him to react to her so she could unleash truer insults and passionately wanted him to vanish to save her the grief.
He said simply as he opened the door, “Just let me get my bag. And . . . I’m sorry I made you angry.”
* * *
IT HAPPENED that Docherty knew well how ambiguous the Celtic cross, once the symbol of one of the most oppressed peoples in Europe, could be for the damaged. One of the purposes of his journey was to warn Australian clergy of this enlarging rage now loose in the world. If nobody listened, he believed such rage would grow to fill the sky. This woman was clearly one of those damaged in the shadow of that sign. And no Southern Baptist, no Marxist, hated the sight of the Celtic cross with the intimate hostility that he could tell was in her. For he had encountered this before. Symptoms of unutterable harm. She had achieved equilibrium, he understood, driving her cab, but perhaps to her own surprise her effort of calm had been disrupted by getting too close to the gate of a suburban monastery.
Quickly, he took one of his professional cards from his pocket, wrote his Sydney contacts on it, and dropped it through the window onto the passenger seat. Then he fetched his bags from the angrily sprung trunk and made for the gate without looking back.
Thomas Keneally began his writing career in 1964 and has published thirty-three novels since, most recently Crimes of the Father, Napoleon’s Last Island, Shame and the Captives, and the New York Times bestselling The Daughters of Mars. His novels include Schindler’s List, which won the Booker Prize in 1982, The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith, Gossip from the Forest, and Confederates, all of which were shortlisted for the Booker Prize. He has also written several works of nonfiction, including his boyhood memoir Homebush Boy, The Commonwealth of Thieves, and Searching for Schindler. He is married with two daughters and lives in Sydney, Australia.
“Distinctive and well-wrought. . . . [a] brilliant, brutal rendering.”
– The New York Times Book Review
"Absorbing...fascinating...Keneally knows how to spin a compelling plot...a good read by a rliable craftsman that tackles an important issue."
– New York Journal of Books
"Stunning and heartrending, a work of fiction that has a terrible ring of truth."
"Keneally's fiction has returned again and again to the themes of thwarted justice and human opportunism. Crimes of the Father is the work of a richly experienced and compassionate writer. It has an honest understanding of a deeply wounded culture."
– The Sydney Morning Herald
“Keneally boldly puts you in each character’s place…Pulsing with rage at ecclesiastical complacency, it’s deeply discomfiting (but never prurient) quest for redress narrated with clarity and urgency.”
– Daily Mail (UK)
"An impressive panorama...Crimes of the Father [is] a convincing argument for the power of fiction to get under the skin of a great contemporary controversy."
– The Times of London (UK)
"Keneally is extraordinarily generous in his story-telling...another hugely satisfying read from one of the world's great writers."
– The Spectator
"A provocative and powerful study...Keneally exposes the cynical casuistry of a church determined to fight critics down to 'its last lawyer', an institution that puts its survival above its soul."
– The Guardian (UK)
”The writing comes alive…timely and wise.”
– The Sydney Review of Books
”A propellant plot…first-rate."
– The Australian
"A powerful story."
– New York Post
International Praise for Napoleon's Last Island:
“This brilliant reworking of a 19th-century footnote is more than historical fiction, it’s an account of contemporary relevance – typical Keneally, then . . . Another Keneally trademark is using minor characters to tell a greater story. Through Betsy runs the fault-line between cultures: the British monarchy vs the dubious republican, the global battle writ small. It is her obscurity, her unimportance, which makes her the ideal lens . . . . Writing Napoleon’s Last Island from Betsy’s perspective allows Keneally to entertain readers with his trademark verve and impishness. Few can match him as a storyteller, and this story deserved his attention.”
– The Guardian (Australia)
“One of the most enjoyable, high spirited and technically accomplished works of a long career . . . This subtle and festive novel has afforded [an] intimate glimpse of high political drama entwined with domestic play.”
– The Australian
"Keneally…succeeds, with touches of brilliance, in bringing to life characters in more detail than history ever possibly could. For it is not just a story about Betsy, it is also a coming-of-age story, one in which the protagonist gradually becomes aware of the foibles of human nature. Through her we discover an adult world, a world that she constantly grapples to come to terms with."
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