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My Father’s House by Joseph O’Connor: A masterful, seamless blend of fact and fiction

The gripping story of an Irish priest who helped save thousands from the Nazis during the occupation of Rome

My Father’s House
My Father’s House
Author: Joseph O’Connor
ISBN-13: 9781473560000
Publisher: Vintage
Guideline Price: £28

Joseph O’Connor’s new novel, based on the extraordinary true story of an Irish priest in the Vatican who helped to save thousands of prisoners during the Nazi occupation of Rome, is a riveting tale about the power of community in the face of unfathomable evil. The Escape Line, headed by Msgr Hugh O’Flaherty, was responsible for saving in the region of 6,500 Allied soldiers and Jews during the second World War.

The gargantuan efforts undertaken to achieve this were documented in the 1983 film The Scarlet and the Black, starring Gregory Peck as O’Flaherty, and in Maj Sam Derry’s memoir The Rome Escape Line (1960), a letter from which is used by O’Connor as the epigraph of his novel. It’s an indicator of what is to follow, namely a seamless blend of fact and fiction by a master of the genre, resulting in a brisk, polyphonic narrative that brings the heroism of ordinary individuals thrillingly to life.

O’Connor is the author of nine novels, including Star of the Sea, Ghost Light and Shadowplay. His awards include the Prix Zepter for European Novel of the Year, France’s Prix Millepages, Italy’s Premio Acerbi, an American Library Association Award and the Irish Pen Award for Outstanding Achievement in Literature. This experience shows on the page, the raconteur’s flair for mining history that has seen his work translated into over 40 languages.

Historical details are scattered like gems throughout My Father’s Voice: a Panzerjager anti-aircraft cannon, the ‘Me ne frego’ slogan of the Fascists, the horror of the Nazi prisons in Rome: “Four thousand frightened prisoners crammed like abused beasts, half starved, into a couple of barbed-wired stony fields.” The depiction of the underground resistance throughout the city, the bravery and ingenuity of its citizens, is equally vivid and granular: home-made caltrops that puncture the tyres of the Nazi jeeps and motorcycles, the smashing of street lamps to leave the city in darkness, deliveries of clothes and supplies, money stashed in bookshops, false information and messaging designed to confuse the Nazis: “To waste the enemy’s time was to deplete his resources.”


Any writer worth their salt can do the research and present the facts. Where My Father’s House really shines is in O’Connor’s assembly of the material and his ventriloquistic way with voice. From the map of Rome and the Vatican at the beginning that locates the action, to the classical three-act structure, to a central narrative that moves forward in time over one momentous day, there is a clear sense of authority, a composer at work. In the hands of a less experienced writer, the many metafictional devices – unpublished memoirs, letters, transcripts from BBC interviews, among others – could confuse or detract from the story. O’Connor keeps an admirable command of the various strains and voices, some fictional, others, such as the British diplomat Sir D’Arcy Osborne, drawn from reality.

I was reminded of the novels of John Boyne, Kate Atkinson, and most unusually, Andrew O’Hagan’s wonderful novel on fame, Personality, which has a similarly dazzling way with voice and historical period detail

Together the voices offer testimony of a daring mission on Christmas Eve 1943, where Msgr O’Flaherty, with the help of seven others, must drop money around the city to help evacuate prisoners from safe houses before an expected influx of Nazi soldiers early in the new year. Written in the first person past, these recollections have the feel of dramatic monologues (a Dutch female journalist is particularly good), and reflect the author’s experience as a playwright. One can easily imagine the stage or screen adaptation of this book. O’Connor is a visualist who revels in evocative cityscapes of a Rome under siege: “A trio of diseased sycamores and the concrete hive of a machine-gun turret.” Weather is also used effectively as a way to set or reset scenes, though cumulatively the pathetic fallacy can feel overdone, and there is perhaps one too many Shakespeare references throughout.

Will anyone care? I doubt it. Readers will be too caught up in the stylishness of O’Connor’s writing, the delight in watching a plan come together, the tension of wondering whether it will succeed. I was reminded of the novels of John Boyne, Kate Atkinson, and most unusually, Andrew O’Hagan’s wonderful novel on fame, Personality, which has a similarly dazzling way with voice and historical period detail.

My Father’s House, the first in a trilogy, is a novel full of deft characterisation and knowledge, not just the historical facts, but the broader – grander? – wisdom to be found in excavating the past in order to understand who we are: “It came to me that what we find convenient to call charity is often vanity in camouflage, merely a way of floating up smoke signals of superiority about ourselves, or to ourselves, so that the smoke will conceal our ugliness.” The charitable acts at the centre of My Father’s House are the opposite of this: quiet, heroic and worthy of this fine retelling.

Sarah Gilmartin

Sarah Gilmartin

Sarah Gilmartin is a contributor to The Irish Times focusing on books and the wider arts