Joseph O’Connor’s new novel My Father’s House, published in the UK today, is based on the true story of Hugh O’Flaherty, a Catholic priest who helped thousands of Jews and Allied prisoners of war to escape from Italy during World War II. This is the third book I’ve read by O’Connor (the others are Shadowplay, about the author Bram Stoker and the actors Henry Irving and Ellen Terry, and Ghost Light, which explores the relationship between the playwright John Millington Synge and the actress Molly Allgood) and I think it’s the best of the three.
The main part of the novel is set in 1943. Born and raised in Ireland, Monsignor Hugh O’Flaherty is serving in Vatican City during the war – a neutral territory within Nazi-occupied Rome. As an official Vatican visitor to Italy’s prisoner of war camps, Hugh has been trying to improve conditions for the prisoners, but his actions mark him out as an Allied sympathiser and his superiors prevent him from carrying out any more visits in case he makes the Vatican a Nazi target. However, Hugh won’t be stopped that easily and soon he has set up an Escape Line, successfully smuggling Jews and escaped prisoners out of Rome right under the eyes of the Nazis.
The biggest escape mission yet – the ‘Rendimento’ – has been arranged for Christmas Eve, 1943. In the hope that the Gestapo will be less vigilant on this particular night, Hugh and his group of courageous volunteers have put elaborate plans in place to move a large number of people out of the city under the cover of darkness. As we count down the days and hours leading up to the mission, we also get to know each member of Hugh’s team and how they came to be involved in the Escape Line.
The group use the cover of meeting for ‘choir practice’ and this is where they discuss their plans and receive their instructions – carefully coded, of course, as the Nazis have eyes and ears everywhere. One Nazi in particular is getting too close for comfort; he is Obersturmbannführer Paul Hauptmann, who already has his eye on Hugh due to the camp visits and is starting to close in on the Choir and the Rendimento. But although Hauptmann is our villain, O’Connor gives him a surprising amount of depth, describing his home life and his relationship with his wife and children. This reminder that Nazi officers were often also family men leading normal domestic lives just makes Hauptmann’s behaviour feel even more chilling and shocking.
As the clock ticks down on Christmas Eve, the suspense increases as we are kept wondering whether the mission will succeed. However, the chapters describing the build-up to the Rendimento are interspersed with other chapters in which each member of the Choir introduces themselves and their background and tells us how they met Hugh and joined his group. I wasn’t very keen on this structure as I felt that it broke the flow of the story and took away some of the tension, but it was still interesting to hear their different voices (some of which I found more convincingly written than others). They included Sir D’Arcy Osborne, the British envoy to the Holy See, and his butler John May, diplomat’s wife Delia Kiernan, and escaped soldier Sam Derry – all of whom were real people.
I had never read anything about Hugh O’Flaherty and his work until now, so I’m pleased to have had the chance to learn something new. I see he was the subject of a 1983 film, The Scarlet and the Black, starring Gregory Peck, which I’ve never come across either. Although My Father’s House is a complete novel in itself, it’s apparently the first in an Escape Line trilogy – I’ll be looking out for the next one and will be interested to see if it’s going to focus on a different member of the group this time.
Thanks to Harvill Secker for providing a copy of this book for review via NetGalley.
This is book 3/50 read for the 2023 Historical Fiction Reading Challenge.