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In the gripping ‘My Father’s House,’ a priest takes on the Nazis

Joseph O’Connor’s novel is based on the true story of a group in Vatican City whose daring exploits during World War II saved lives and changed outcomes

Vatican City on Feb. 15, 1946. During World War II, Monsignor Hugh O’Flaherty, Irish envoy to the Vatican, helped thousands escape the Nazis. (AP)
5 min

Late one night in December 1943, a woman drives a Daimler quickly through the streets of Rome. In the passenger seat, a black-clad man. In the back, a man in German uniform, groaning in agony. They arrive at a hospital where a sullen orderly with a flashlight in one hand and a switchblade in the other looks at the patient, then scoffs and spits at the woman’s request to help him. The man in black steps out of the car and opens his raincoat to reveal a priest’s collar. His garb is genuine. But the patient’s Nazi uniform is a disguise: He is in fact an escaped British prisoner. “Is there a dentist in that hospital behind you?” asks the priest. “Why?” replies the orderly. “Because you’ll need one in a minute when I punch your teeth through your skull.”

Joseph O’Connor’s latest novel, “My Father’s House,” begins with a potent blend of excitement, suspense and intrigue. After making his mark with his grand entrance, O’Connor’s priest goes on to steal many more scenes by showing not just the courage of his convictions but also courage under fire. The result is a gripping World War II-set drama featuring the unlikeliest of heroes, one whom the reader roots for every step of the way.

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German forces have occupied Rome. Obersturmbannführer Paul Hauptmann’s iron grip on the city is a stranglehold that restricts freedom of movement and expression. He is informed that Adolf Hitler is furious that increasing numbers of Allied prisoners and Jews are escaping camps throughout Italy. Most are heading to the capital in a bid to seek sanctuary in Vatican City — the world’s smallest state and, more important, a neutral enclave and independent safe zone within Rome. Hauptmann believes that a “nuisance of a priest” is involved with an escape line and instructs his deputy to take necessary action: “Let’s get this weed uprooted.”

The Gestapo chief’s suspicions are correct. Monsignor Hugh O’Flaherty, Irish envoy to the Vatican, has assembled a ragtag group to spirit to safety those fleeing Nazi persecution. To cover their tracks, they form a choir and meet once a week for “rehearsal.” At each session, while harboring the ever-present fear of being betrayed, they go over and commit to memory the latest operational plans, escape routes, safe houses and false identities. In case the walls have ears, they speak in code — escapees collectively are “The Library,” individual fugitives “Books,” their hiding places “Shelves.” If that code is cracked, and if the group is compromised, then Nazi repercussions will be swift, brutal and far-reaching.

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Every so often a chorister is required to go out and perform a “solo.” When news trickles in that a Nazi invasion of the Vatican is imminent, O’Flaherty devises a mission for group member Enzo Angelucci to carry out on the night of Christmas Eve, 1943. At the 11th hour, Angelucci, who has the right attitude but insufficient expertise, panics and drops out. Rather than abort, O’Flaherty takes his place. But just as he is making progress, he turns a corner and is brought to an abrupt stop by Hauptmann and his Luger.

O’Connor has written several novels based on real Irish people. His 2010 book, “Ghost Light,” chronicled the love affair between a young actress and the playwright John Millington Synge. O’Connor returned to the theatrical world for his last novel, the bravura “Shadowplay” (2019), which traced the relationship between Dracula’s creator, Bram Stoker, and two main players on the Victorian stage.

“My Father’s House” sees the Dublin-born writer once again turning fact into fiction. The novel is inspired by the true story of O’Flaherty and his associates, whose daring exploits saved lives and changed outcomes. O’Connor’s narrative charts the buildup and countdown to their mission, and O’Flaherty’s attempt to execute it. Woven around these two main threads are colorful testimonies from all eight choristers. They display a range of singular voices and absorbing backstories that flesh out each character.

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These include a British ambassador, a Dutch journalist and an Italian candle seller. Delia, the wife of an Irish diplomat, infuses her account with dry wit: “I was singing in Belfast the night the Luftwaffe firebombed the theatre,” she explains. “That’s what you call a mixed review.” Giovanna, a widowed countess, finds a new purpose and the will to live when she rallies to O’Flaherty’s cause. John May from London is a rough diamond and smooth operator who doesn’t suffer fools: “Once bitten, twice bite, that’s my motto.”

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For a while, the book feels like an ensemble piece. However, O’Flaherty (or as May calls him, “Hughdini”) emerges as the star of the show. O’Connor brings vividly to life a man who, despite his calling, stands up to be counted after witnessing Nazi atrocities. His cat-and-mouse game with Hauptmann is expertly plotted; his desperate mission through the streets of Rome is brilliantly paced. It is hard not to be captivated by his presence throughout this hugely satisfying book, from its explosive opening to its bittersweet end.

Malcolm Forbes is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in the Economist, the Financial Times, the Wall Street Journal and the New Republic.

My Father’s House

By Joseph O’Connor

Europa. 440 pp. $27

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