Review: Vivien Horler
My Father’s House, by Joseph O’Connor (Harvill Secker)
For decades after World War 2, BBC television had a popular programme called This is Your Life, in which someone who was impressive for one reason or another was surprised on TV with the appearance of people who had been pivotal in their lives.
One of those featured was a former British officer and twice-escaped POW, Major Sam Derry, who found haven in the Vatican – neutral during the war – and who helped organise what was known as the “escape line”.
As cover, Derry took on the role of a clerk in the Church, and was assisted by a senior Irish priest, Monsignor Hugh O’Flaherty, based in the Vatican. It is said they helped more than 4 000 Jews and POWs escape the clutches of the Gestapo.
In the early 1960s the BBC decided to feature O’Flaherty in This is Your Life, but because his health was precarious and there were fears the surprise could be too much for him, instead it featured Derry, with O’Flaherty one of the people who surprised him.
Derry and O’Flaherty are at the centre of best-selling author Joseph O’Connor’s latest novel, My Father’s House, in which he weaves a tense, nail-biting story about an operation in Derry and O’Flaherty’s war, and their efforts to avoid capture and probably murder at the hands of the Gestapo.
Around O’Flaherty and Derry, O’Connor has created a group of fictional characters who are part of the Choir – a cover for the core of those who assisted with the escape line.
They include a widowed Italian contessa, the wife of a senior Irish diplomat to Italy, an Italian vendor of religious medals and cards, the British ambassador to the Holy See, and his manservant, a wily Cockney.
By late 1943 the German army was in Rome, but so far had respected the Vatican’s neutrality. As a result diplomats, refugees and escaped Allied prisoners had flooded into the tiny city – I’d had no idea it was just 20% of a square mile.
In the novel the local head of the Gestapo, Obersturmbannfuhrer Paul Hauptmann, a vicious man, is being harassed by Himmler to stop the flood of Allied escapees. So Hauptman, who correctly is convinced O’Flaherty is deeply involved in the escape line, has him in his sights.
The story is told in the voices of O’Flaherty and Hauptmann, but also in the voices of other members of the Choir, usually in the form of fictional interviews or statements done for the purposes of the This is Your Life programme.
O’Connor is a brilliantly accomplished creator of characters and their voices. Delia Kiernan, the Irish diplomat’s wife, starts off: “I probably drink too much. Which is the main thing to say. They’ll have told you, no doubt… So I’m not entirely certain when I first met the Monsignor. It was in Rome during the war. Don’t ask me to work it out more than that or I’d need a long lie-down.”
We hear the voice of the British ambassador, Sir D’Arcy Osborne, in a coded communique sent to London on Christmas Eve 1943. Sir D’Arcy is staying in a former pilgrim’s hostel in the Vatican, to which he and his staff have fled after the Germans occupied Rome three months previously. The British share the hostel with another fleeing diplomat, the Swiss ambassador.
Sir D’Arcy tells how the ambassador observes a two-ft wide white stripe being painted by the Germans around St Peter’s Square to keep people in the Vatican, and out of Rome.
When the indignant ambassador tells Hauptmann he cannot be be shut in, as a credential-bearing diplomat of the Corpo Diplomatico, Hauptmann replies: “I don’t care if you are Jesus Christ Almighty. Cross that line and you’re in a concentration camp.”
Sir D’Arcy tells his superiors his manservant, John May, is “an inscrutable native of Whitechapel, [who] has proven a veritable genius of on-the-quiet, resourceful scrounging, a filcher the like of whom has not been seen since the Artful Dodger”.
Which introduces us to May, possibly my favourite character in the novel. Before the war he played the saxophone in Soho, and made a bit of money on the side as a club bouncer. He goes on a bit of a riff about “queers”.
“No queer’s never done me no bother, I say live and let live… Blokes dancing with blokes at a nightclub don’t bother me none. If you’re bothered yourself, don’t go, mate. Have a dance with your bloody wardrobe as far as I’m concerned, and take it to bed with you after, if it’s willing to go.”
There’s a fair bit of humour in this novel, but also some extremely tight and frightening moments.
O’Connor is a wonderful novelist, and this book is worth reading for its tension, its humour, and its depiction of ordinary people’s astonishing bravery in the face of tyranny.