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8 of 8 people found the following review helpful
Clad equally in priestly vestments and an aura of innocence, Frank Darragh suddenly finds the world crowding his faith. Two great bastions of Empire have succumbed to Japanese invasions, and Frank's Sydney stands imperiled alone. As the remaining outpost of Empire, Sydney has become a military crossroads and, if the Japanese haven't invaded, the Yanks have. They are ubiquitous - on the streets, in pubs, and taking up with Sydney women. One of these women, a "POW widow" encounters Frank, setting off a disturbing chain of events.
War is busy time for young men - committment, training, combat. When that young man happens to be a priest, further emotional conflicts needing resolution arise. Social pressures become intense, with people seeking solace wherever it can be found. Frank's confessional has a queue. He's even more popular than the parish priest - "You'll have to put in for overtime!", Fr. Carolan tells him. There's more involved than Frank's light penances. He feels the need to reach out and bring consolation instead of waiting to be asked. That leads him to cross parish boundaries in support of an AWOL soldier. Crossing that line adds further complexity as Frank's confronted with race issues. Between the temptation of a woman, the startling revelation of child abuse, and a murder, Frank leads a hectic existence.
In one sense, Keneally's plot is relatively transparent. His characters follow predictable paths once they're introduced. Although not a "mystery" writer, he provides a murder and the perpetrator can be only one character. With Keneally, this is hardly a shortcoming. His strength is character development, and whatever your opinion of Frank Darragh, Keneally has portrayed him with his usual finesse. As with all Keneally fiction, this book ends with the resolution of a moral dilemma. The impact of that issue has little to do with the plot - it's wholly in the hands of the protagonist. Keneally's command of language and his ability to reveal inner feelings is unmatched and well demonstrated here. Pick up the book and follow the response of a man's discovery of the world. ... [stephen a. haines - Ottawa, Canada]
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
TOP 1000 REVIEWERon 9 September 2009
Father Frank Darragh is an innocent and to the more worldly, and in many ways more wise, Monsignor Carolan, he is something of a trial. Father Frank takes his ministry much more seriously than is usual, and with an openness that is sometimes misconstrued.

We are in Northern coastal Australia in a town close to the barracks of the American and Australian forces who are currently fighting World War II in the Pacific Ocean. Father Frank meets a number of Catholic adherents, including a black soldier caught consorting with white women. Father Frank worries that this man will not survive incarceration, since the racism with which he is regarded seems to promise harsh treatment. Pursuing his own agenda, according to the God who directs him, Father Frank also meets a young Australian woman with a son, whose husband has been captured by the Japanese. Her faith has been tested and Father Frank, recognising that he finds this woman attractive, nevertheless contends with her in conversation and in letters for her immortal soul, despite the advice of Monsignor Carolan to avoid contact with her. At the same time, he comes across the charismatic figure of Fratelli, a Sergeant MP in the American forces stationed in the town.

Each of these characters and a few others germane to the story that will unravel, is introduced authoritatively, as one would expect of the writer who created Schindler's Ark. But Keneally has an impressive repertoire of writing, having been shortlisted for the Booker prize four times. His writing style is deceptively plain, which makes the expressive emotional shock which builds within the events of Father Frank's ministry all the more telling.

Not having a religious bone in my body, I was astonished to find myself greatly moved and provoked by the strength of my attention to the characters of this powerful book. It reminded me a little of the works of Graham Greene, in its outlook of sceptical attachment to the Roman Catholic world.
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on 17 May 2015
Keneally is a master of his craft. The book is compelling, the young protagonist priest very convincingly portrayed. He becomes involved in three particular lives, one is a young woman, wife of a soldier (it is set in WWII Australia) who is either a prisoner of the Germans or dead; the second is a young black American soldier who goes AWOL to live with a white Australian woman; and the third is a very insistent and increasingly less plausible American sergeant who clearly wants something from him, as yet undefined. This embroils Father Frank Darragh in trying to save bodies as well as souls.

Having been raised a Catholic, I thought he caught very well the attitude of the Church in the person of the monsignor and in the person of the military chaplain. An adherence to norms and rules, a respect for social mores which far exceeds any Christian compassion, kindness or humanity. They were people doing a job, running a business in the monsignor’s case. But not so Father Darragh, still in the grip of his ideals. In trying to save the woman from sin – she tells him, away from the confessional, that she has a man friend who is, for the time being only a friend. But there is danger, Darragh is certain. He is also inappropriately dragged into the arrest of a black American AWOL soldier. We find out why later, but meanwhile he becomes more and more concerned that the man, due to his colour, will die in suspicious circumstances while in prison, as is the norm for such men. He contacts the military chaplain, who lends only minor and reluctant assistance, obviously having no intention of trying to circumvent the inevitable.

To me, the book had two themes, kindness and guilt. Our young priest becomes implicated when the woman he was trying to save is murdered, perhaps even implicated as the murderer. More attention is given to Darragh’s possible guilt than to the woman and the fate of her young son. Darragh himself becomes none too certain what his motives were towards the woman, but murder wasn’t one of them. He tries to help the boy but is rebuffed by the monsignor and instead made to take the boy to what seems a cold and uncaring, starkly religious orphanage. He begins to look into the death of the boy’s mother.

It seems everyone he tries to help comes to grief. He is ordered to take a sabbatical from the priesthood and serves in the army as an orderly where he encounters a wounded young man who had once been a monk and whose confession he had heard, making it a condition of absolution that he tell his superior in the monastery that he had sexually molested a boy. Instead the monk left and joined the army. Now he was dying. Was absolution possible?

But the question ought to be, Is guilt possible? Is it real? And the corollary, does it need a priest to absolve it, if so?

Of course guilt is a construction of social control. And, up to a point, Keneally seems to agree with this by showing us how cruelty even among Churchmen is not only possible but condoned as necessary. There is nothing real about guilt unless we define it as real. And even then, it is only 'real' to those who share the definition. When subjective meanings concur, they become illusions, and such illusions can be institutionalised as religions which offer their followers the warm comfort of shared meanings. And shared judgments. It’s nice to be right, but even nicer to right along with others. Makes your lips smack! But we cannot find guilt in others without finding it in ourselves. Having found it, we are indeed certain to suffer.

In the Office of Innocence, given that Father Frank could see through so much of Church doctrine; and given that he understood his view of guilt did not always coincide with that of the Church he served, he was close to a life-changing breakthrough. He had inner discipline, admirable perseverance, and he had courage. The choice was there: the illusion of guilt or would compassion lead him to true Innocence?
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TOP 500 REVIEWERon 28 March 2014
The Australian author, Thomas Keneally won the Booker Prize in 1982 for Schindler’s Ark, later made into the film, Schindler’s List. This novel tells the approximately contemporaneous fictional story of Father Frank Darragh, a hardworking Australian priest, during World War II. The time is set as the Japanese capture Singapore and amidst the concerns that they will sweep on to Australia. The story is given added significance by the author’s own studies for the Catholic priesthood and by its dedication ‘to the memory of Sergeant Tom Keneally, 3rd Australian Squadron, RAAF, North Africa, WWII’.

Almost all the novel is set in the suburbs of Sydney, an area that Kineally describes vividly, as he does its population. It is a time when American forces are very visible and many Australians have friends and family fighting in Europe, killed, missing in action or believed to be captured by the Germans. When we first meet Darragh he is largely untroubled by the greater mysteries of faith and is the most popular confessor in his parish, for which he gets no thanks from his superior. Keneally shows that much of his time is spend praying and trying to become the priest that his mother and his Aunt Madge want him to be.

Three major issues strike at Darragh’s faith, the confession of a young soldier who, perhaps rather improbably, has gone to a party with a female impersonator and then got carried away, his meeting with a married woman, Mrs Heggarty, whose husband has been captured by the Germans in North Africa and who is contemplating adultery so that she and her son can manage financially and emotionally until her husband returns, and, finally, his being asked by an American Military Policeman, Master Sergeant Gene Fratelli, to talk to a young black soldier who has run away after becoming involved with an Australian girl.

Darragh’s responses to the latter two situations enrage his superior, the self-serving Monsignor Carolan, who is ever ready to criticise his behavior and commitment. Believing that he needs to clarify his position, Darragh unwisely visits Mrs Heggarty and, after talking with her, becomes even more concerned about what she is planning.

When a crime is committed, the priest finds himself responsible for negative reports in the anti-Catholic press and his rather naïve attempts to act according to his conscience result in his being sent on a retreat. There, perhaps for the first time, he meets truly spiritual people. When he arrives back in Sydney his attempt to comply with his superior’s demands are blown out of the water by what he learns in another confession.

Perhaps Kineally has created just one too many pitfalls for Darragh to stumble into, but he is a believable character as, indeed, is everyone we meet in this novel. The need to balance the political, social, financial, spiritual and pastoral demands of the church are clearly set out as are the tensions, at all levels, between the Australian and American military and the Australian civilians. The increasing concern of a Japanese invasion is very well described, especially in a scene where, following the bombing of Darwin, very young children are shown what to do in case of an aerial attack [the basic equipment to withstand such a bombardment was ‘two tennis ball halves to place over the ears, a wooden wedge to put between the teeth, a whistle to blow beneath the rubble, a tin container of burn salve and a safety-pinned roll of lint bandage’.] The casual racism against black soldiers within the American military was also graphically presented.

The author’s taut narrative manages to pull the various strands of the novel together in an unforced manner and a coda shows us how Darragh responds to the pressures on his belief. Occasionally, the author’s prose threatens to run away [‘His arms and legs, ready to fight if needed, felt heavy with alarmed blood’], but the reader is left without any doubt that, for the priest, decision making and morality within the confessional is much more straightforward than outside in the real world. Durragh wonders ‘was Catholicism and its orthodoxy sometimes better designed for the timid, or twitching souls who came too often to confession, for the scrupulous so hungry for absolution at every hour?’

An thoughtful novel about a compassionate man in a dark and violent world.
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on 22 September 2012
This is a novel which is like three novels in one, as it is about a young Roman Catholic priest serving in Sydney Australia against the background of World War Two. To describe the third strand would be to spoil it for prospective readers! It is written honestly from the perspective of a critic of the Church(Keneally was once a seminarian) yet it is not offensive to most Christians. The photo in the cover is entirely misleading; this novel is not about married sex ! If like me you only knew Keneally's work from Schindler's Ark, you are in for a delightful surprise as it is very different. Keneally has the power to put you in a place with strong characters. In this he ranks with Steinbeck and Green.
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0 of 3 people found the following review helpful
on 24 December 2012
This book was so very slow, in fact I gave up having read more than half, I very rarely give up on a book having read so much.
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