An Angel in Australia, by Tom Keneally

Reviewed by Magdalena Ball

There is something to be said for plain, clean narrative, with no tricks, no fancy poetry, twists or multiple time sequences. Tom Keneally’s latest novel, An Angel in Australia has been written solely with the reader in mind. It is an easy, fast paced and big hearted story which draws on Keneally’s own experiences as a child during WW2, as well as his extensive knowledge of the clergy, about which he has written. The story involves Father Frank Darragh, a young and “naive” priest, whose sense of compassion comes into conflict with the Church, the times, and threatens to undermine his own faith. The story opens in 1939, as Darragh, a priest in training, worries about his lack of involvement in the war, and receives a prophetic message from a monsignor commanding him to be a “merciful confessor.” Darragh takes the message very seriously, and from then on, the story takes place in the pivotal period of 1942, with Sydney fearing an impending Japanese invasion, visiting well heeled American troups, and air raids combining to create a change in the morality. The impact on the type of confessions Darragh starts to hear is dramatic, and his sense of divine order begins to unravel. He faces a number of startling challenges to his faith, including a fellow priest who has abused a child, homosexuality and transvestism, unfaithfulness, militarily sanctioned racial bigotry, and above all, the honest confessions of a beautiful woman accepting small favours for the sake of “dignity” while her husband is a prisoner in Germany. Frank’s attraction to the woman and her subsequent murder turn this story into a significant mystery which calls to mind Chesterton’s Father Brown stories that Frank himself is reading.

Keneally’s characters are well drawn, and we can sympathise with the gentle Frank as he does multiple battle with sin, his close minded and self serving superiors, real criminals, the law, and his own tortured sense of faith and feelings of insecurity in the face of the war. Other characters are also well drawn, with the slightest touch of Dickens, such as the monsignor Carolan, a man who excels in fund raising, but whose sense of compassion is solely lacking. There is the Cajun prisoner Gervaise, with his exaggerated politeness, his accent with its “layers of dolour and diphthong” and his hopeless future, the “worldly” inspector Kearney, the pugilistic communist saviour Trundle and the well spoken and unpenitent Kate Heggerty with her lost son, and the very American MP Fratelli, with his boxes of groceries and confident but strange air, all of whom lend colour and depth to what is essentially Darragh’s story.

Keneally is also able to create setting and place effectively, illuminating an American barracks and its relationship to its Australian environment:
They drew up to the camp gate in a country of stunted eucalypts and acacia. The rituals of admission, the gestures of the military police, were all so emphatic. Americans were good at military liturgy, an art form more casually attended to in the Australian army. No movement these men made seemed casual or negligent. In their standings-to-attention, in thier impeccable webbing, they seemed to Darragh to have built a ritual bridgehead against the enemy. (198)

Or the climactic moment when Japanese submarines attack Sydney Harbour: The peculiarities of light and tracer and shadow which had enabled them all to see the tip of the submarine had passed and been replaced by raw, unregulated sound. So simultaneously did machine-gun fire and rifle shots and shells and depth-charge explosions occur, including here, with the gun crew and the men with the automatic rifle at the end of the ferry jetty all adding their foreground quotient to the body of sound, there was not room for breath. (304)

Although this is primarily a novel of plot – a fine story, rather than a difficult exploration of ideas, Frank’s attempts to reconcile a personal morality which makes sense in terms of his own experiences with the Church’s morality is poignant and provides the backdrop or premise of the book. The Church also represents authority in all its forms, and is paralleled by the authority presented by the American army – and in both cases, this authority is found wanting in the face of true compassion and morality. Kate Heggerty cannot be saved, Gervaise is never heard from again, Carolan continues to enjoy his golf, and Darragh is laicised, but perhaps not before he is able to save Kate’s son. Ultimately, An Angel in Australia with its ambiguous title, refers to more than Kate Heggerty’s corpse, but also Darragh and his angelic soul, which rises above the constraints of his environment.

In an interview with The Compulsive Reader, Keneally said that “I firmly believe that the novel is meant to be chaotic,” and swore an oath that novels after Bettany’s Book, his previous novel, would be less inclusive. An Angel in Australia is not chaotic at all, but rather a very smooth, tightly constructed and linear narrative set in a single place and single time in history. It is certainly less inclusive than Bettany’s Book, and much more focused, although perhaps less ambitious as well. That is no crime however. It would be difficult to criticise this extremely entertaining, well constructed story which takes the reader so effortlessly into a very serious and important part of Australian and world history.

An Angel in Australia, by Tom Keneally
ISBN 1-86471-001-2
2002, hb, RRP A$39.95

Magdalena Ball is Editor of The Compulsive Reader, Preschool Entertainment, and is the author The Art of Assessment: How to Review Anything. Her fiction, poetry, reviews, interviews, and essays have appeared in a wide range of on-line and print publications.