Book review: My Father’s House by Joseph O’Connor

My Father’s House is a novel based on a true story (very loosely based, O’Connor emphasises in an author’s note). Father Hugh O’Flaherty is an Irish priest and high-ranking official in the Vatican during the Nazi occupation of Rome. After seeing, via his official role, the horrors of the prisoner-of-war camps, he forms a group of conspirators, including a popular Irish singer who is married to a diplomat, a British musician turned diplomat’s batman, and an Italian contessa. They are part of a network helping escaped prisoners to hide out in, and eventually get away from, the Vatican and Rome.

They operate under the cover of a choir which meets in the Vatican and are planning a mission on Christmas Eve 1943 (code-named a ‘Rendimento’, the Italian for performance). The plan is to make a number of money drops across Rome so it can be distributed to the escapees and those who help them. 

The Vatican is neutral territory but the non-Italian choir members are constrained in their movements into the wider city (O’Flaherty needs a pass even to visit his barber). Paul Hauptmann, the Gestapo commander in Rome, is under pressure to staunch the flow of escapees. Capture would mean torture and death at the hands of the Nazis.

While many of the choir members are privileged (socially or because of their diplomatic status or both), each is an outsider in their way, with different motivations. We also see the courage of escaped prisoners and ordinary Romans in the network, for whom the stakes may be even higher.

O’Flaherty is a pleasingly complex character. Intellectual and spiritual, able to talk easily with people of all classes and nationalities, he is bullish in his dealings with the Nazis, a conspirator hiding in plain sight. He does make a couple of decisions which I don’t fully understand but that only makes him more interesting.

The story unfolds both in 1943, and in chapters where various members of the choir give their account many years later. This is clever because it tells you that the person speaking, at least, has survived, and makes you wonder about their co-conspirators. It also allows them to offer commentary and insights given on reflection, when all details of what occurred are known.

O’Connor’s prose is wonderful. Among the brutal privations, the unseen sacrifices, the corruption and compromises, he captures the spirit of Rome — and the sheer oddity of life in the Vatican. The night of the Rendimento, the quiet of the city on Christmas Eve, is particularly haunting.

I wasn’t sure the mano-a-mano element between Hauptmann and O’Flaherty was necessary and the lengthy resolution, for me, detracted from rather than added to the whole, but these are quibbles. My Father’s House is a moving, beautifully written and pacy literary thriller.

I received a copy of My Father’s House from the publisher via NetGalley.
View My Father’s House on Goodreads

Enjoyed this? For another great literary thriller set in the Vatican, take a look at my review of Conclave by Robert Harris

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