As Schindler’s Ark shows, Thomas Keneally is at his best bringing the past to life undaunted either by the importance of the events or by the famous names at the centre of them. Two of his other novels that lie to hand, A Family Madness and Gossip from the Forest, confirm that he wastes no time in throwing the reader in at the deep end and keeping him there. In the first one it’s Belorussia scrabbling to preserve its identity as Germany, Russia and Poland fight over it during the last war; in the other we eavesdrop on the private conversations between the French, British and German delegates when they meet in two railway carriages in a forest to discuss the armistice of 1918. In his new book we’re in Sydney in 1942, Singapore has fallen, bombs have hit Darwin – will we find ourselves on the bridge of the Japanese admiral’s flagship steaming towards the Coral Sea?
Nothing so lofty. Instead we’re in a Sydney suburb sharing the quotidian rites and duties of a young Catholic priest called Frank Durragh. He’s devout and dutiful, willing to take on extra duties to give Monsignor time to raise money from the rich, over well-laden dining tables. An innocent abroad but a knowing one, he is not surprised to overhear what his colleagues think of him: a ‘hero of silly pious women and pale self-abusers