My Father’s House by Joseph O’Connor review – the priest who defied Nazis

<span>Photograph: Anonymous/AP</span>
Photograph: Anonymous/AP

Joseph O’Connor’s earlier work was instrumental in demonstrating that modern historical fiction can mean novels of ideas and the state of the nation rather than works of populist nostalgia. Writing about second world war espionage and resistance is brave in this context – there are so many gold-lettered tales of homosocial derring-do sold to men in airports – but anyone buying My Father’s House with this expectation will find themselves expected to think as well as fantasise.

Like 2019’s Shadowplay, My Father’s House is woven through the historical record. There was indeed an Irish priest living in Vatican City involved in running an escape line for resistance fighters, escaped prisoners of war and Jewish people from Nazi-run Rome, and his collaborators share names and biographical details with characters in this book. O’Connor is clear that his characters are “not to be relied upon by biographers or researchers” and that sequences “presenting themselves as authentic documents are works of fiction”. The writer’s challenge is to balance the messy improbability of what actually happened with the structural requirements of the novel.

O’Connor achieves this balance partly through characterisation and voices strong enough that we eagerly follow them through uncertainty, mundanity and disappointment as well as high-stakes jeopardy. The novel is built out of the present-tense close third-person narrative of the priest, Hugh O’Flaherty, the technique historical fiction owes to Hilary Mantel, interspersed with fictional interviews conducted for a radio programme in 1963 with the seven people running the escape line under Hugh’s direction. All have distinctive and often very funny voices: they are Irish, English, Italian, aristocrats and shopkeepers.

O’Flaherty’s movements around Vatican City and Rome in the hours before the “Rendimento”, the movement of a large number of hidden refugees and resistance fighters out of the Nazi-held city, are precisely choreographed. On Christmas Eve and under the particular surveillance of Gestapo leader Paul Hauptmann, O’Flaherty needs to distribute large sums of money to people in hiding and organise their escape from the city. The plan relies on his knowledge of secret passageways, tunnels and backstreets, and on the competence and integrity of the inner circle and their collaborators and double agents across Rome, all working under the immediate threat of torture, death and reprisals. There are near misses, scenes of intense physical suffering and rising jeopardy, particularly as we also see vignettes of Hauptmann’s evening. So far, so much like a thriller, but O’Connor rejects voyeurism or titillation. Violence is indirectly conveyed in the destruction of a fine piano, the appearance of a full set of teeth.

This novel also has other work and broader interests. It’s a choral book in two senses: the group meets as a choir and rehearses chamber music to provide aural cover for whispered plans and communications, and the structure of the novel uses the idea of part-singing, each character having a voice and a tune, the sum more than the parts. O’Connor is playing with the possibilities of multiple narrators, and thinking also about plurality, reliability and the historical record: is a collection of witnesses more accurate than a solo narrator? With an Irish priest in Vatican City at the novel’s centre, there are also persistent questions about the idea and morality of neutrality, especially for the church. Hugo remembers his shameful foolishness in seeing “all political systems as more or less the same … the prattling of apes, designed to keep the lesser chimps down”. He learns from the occupation of Rome that “neutrality is the most extremist stance of all: without it, no tyranny can flourish”. And so, like other fictional priests before him – Graham Greene comes to mind, but there’s also a reference to TS Eliot’s Murder in the Cathedral – O’Flaherty chooses between his vow of obedience and his conscience, every hour of every day and right up to the end, where the final twist is satisfyingly theological.

• My Father’s House is published by Harvill Secker (£20). To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at Delivery charges may apply.