Cover image for Office of innocence : a novel
Office of innocence : a novel
Keneally, Thomas.
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First edition in the United States of America.
Publication Information:
New York : Nan A. Talese/Doubleday, 2003.

Physical Description:
319 pages ; 24 cm
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"Copyright (c)2002 by the Serpentine Publishing Co., Pty."--T.p. verso.
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Thomas Keneally is a writer of extraordinary range: from Schindler's List to The Great Shame his storytelling has engaged millions of readers. Now, after a brief departure into non-fiction, he is back with a novel as timely as it is enduring. On the outskirts of Sydney, Father Frank Darragh is embarking on his new life of priesthood just as war erupts in the Pacific theater. American GIs pour into Father Darragh's neighborhood, and with them comes a reminder of the atrocities abounding nearby. Determined to shun hypocrisy, the earnest priest finds himself constantly at odds with his superiors, who frown on his efforts to rescue an errant black soldier and pay deathbed visits to the wayward. But Frank Darragh persists, becoming his parish's most popular confessor, particularly among wives of Australian servicemen who confront an array of temptations while their husbands are away. One such parishioner, Kate Heggarty, turns the tables of temptation on young Darragh, challenging his spiritual beliefs and stirring a vulnerable place in his heart. When Kate is found murdered, his anguish is only compounded by accusations that he caused her death. Poignantly depicting the conflicts between the secular and the holy, and between the family of Darragh's birth and the brotherhood of priests, OFFICE OF INNOCENCE is a tale set in the most compelling of circumstances. Drawing on his own experience studying for the priesthood in his youth, Thomas Keneally has created an endearing protagonist who speaks to the conundrums of our age while paying tribute to quiet heroes of the past. "In the style of the best historians, [Keneally] allows the intrinsic power of the tales he tells and the people who populate his pages to draw the reader into a fully elaborated universe." -The New York Times

Author Notes

Thomas Keneally was born in Sydney, Australia on October 7, 1935. Although he initially studied for the Catholic priesthood, he abandoned that idea in 1960, turning to teaching and clerical work before writing and publishing his first novel, The Place at Whitton, in 1964. Since that time he has been a full-time writer, aside from the occasional stint as a lecturer or writer-in-residence.

He won the Booker Prize in 1982 for Schindler's Ark, which Stephen Spielberg adapted into the film Schindler's List. He won the Miles Franklin Award twice with Bring Larks and Heroes and Three Cheers for the Paraclete. His other fiction books include The Chant of Jimmy Blacksmith, Gossip from the Forest, Confederates, The People's Train, Bettany's Book, An Angel in Australia, The Widow and Her Hero, and The Daughters of Mars. His nonfiction works include Searching for Schindler, Three Famines, The Commonwealth of Thieves, The Great Shame, and American Scoundrel. In 1983, he was awarded the order of Australia for his services to Australian Literature.

Thomas Keneally is the recipient of the 2015 Australia Council Award for Lifetime Achievement in Literature. The award, formerly known as the Writers' Emeritus Award, recognises 'the achievements of eminent literary writers over the age of 60 who have made an outstanding and lifelong contribution to Australian literature.

(Bowker Author Biography)

Reviews 3

Booklist Review

Keneally's return to fiction, after the nonfiction American Scoundrel [BLK F 1 02], may, in its first slow-going pages, initially disappoint readers. But once his fiction engine begins hitting on all cylinders, readers will be swept away on a poignant but never sentimental tale of a young Australian priest, who, not long after his ordination, questions his vocation and his own version of its practice in the early years of World War II, when a Japanese invasion seems imminent. Father Frank Darragh intellectualizes his actions as soul saving, but his heart is often his true prompter, especially when ministering to the young Mrs. Heggarty, who has lost her faith and whose soldier husband is interned in North Africa. Father Darragh's attention to Mrs. Heggarty causes undue public and jurisprudential attention on Church goings-on when the woman is found murdered. What could have been a cliche-riddled and soap opera^-like romance becomes, in Keneally's sensitive and intelligent hands, a gripping, resonant novel about the power and problems of faith and love. --Brad Hooper

Publisher's Weekly Review

Keneally steers a young, nave Australian priest through a series of complex moral choices in his latest novel, which takes place early in WWII with the Japanese forces steadily advancing southward. The insular existence of Catholic cleric Frank Darragh is disturbed when he is approached by a beautiful married woman named Kate Heggarty, whose husband has been captured by the Germans in North Africa. Darragh tries to comfort her, but Heggarty retains her combative stance toward traditional Catholicism as she drifts toward infidelity as a possible means of solace. In spite of his halfhearted efforts to deny her charms, Darragh's growing infatuation becomes an issue when Heggarty is suddenly murdered and the local detectives try to implicate him. Darragh also faces trouble from his conservative monsignor, who sends the priest away on retreat for involving the parish in the investigation. Despite the admonitions of his superior, Darragh puts considerable effort into trying to clarify his role in Heggarty's death, until a U.S. soldier from a nearby American base provides a stunning and compromising revelation regarding the killer's identity. Keneally portrays his protagonist's innocence with a keen but subtle sense of irony, and the surprising plot twists help him steer clear of the usual clichs afflicting novels about compromised clerics. But the true excellence of the book lies in the author's ability to blend his depiction of a seaside village in crisis as the Japanese threaten to invade with the nuances of morality and faith that constantly keep Darragh at odds with himself. The novel lacks the weight of Schindler's List or Keneally's narrative history The Great Shame, but it is a sterling effort on a smaller scale. (Mar. 18) Forecast: Sales should be solid, despite the out-of-the-way setting and relatively narrow scope. (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved

Library Journal Review

The prolific Australian author who brought us Schindler's List offers a profound and moving novel about one young priest's crisis of faith in Sydney during World War II. Father Frank Darragh already feels conflicted about being out of the fighting when his regular duties as a soft-hearted confessor at St. Margaret's begin to put him in touch with war widows and American GIs. He is especially intrigued by Kate Heggarty, who seeks spiritual guidance when she's tempted to cheat on her P.O.W. husband. The monsignor objects to Father Frank's becoming so involved in her case, which explodes in the young priest's face when Kate turns up strangled. Father Frank's struggles to deal with the violent crime (and accusations that he caused Kate's death), while confronting the church hierarchy and his own shattered faith, fully reveal his humanity. A wonderful but never easy novel.-Ann H. Fisher, Radford P.L., VA (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.



I Penitents, kneeling in the confessional, can be divided into predictable categories. The tennis-playing young priests at White City on Mondays, drinking beer supplied, despite war rationing, by a Knight of the Southern Cross who owned a hotel at Edgecliff, often did so. They spoke only of generalized types of sin and sinner, being careful not to violate the strict seal of the sacrament of penance. So there were, for instance, the self-congratulators, muttering minor sins; the shame-hot boy masturbators; the guilt-obsessed, so hungry for pardon that they would confess, if given a chance, many times a day. Amongst priests, as amongst the laity, the confessional was a focus of humor, just as, privately, it was a focus of dread and hope. The curates sitting by the tennis courts all agreed that hearing the utterly predictable confessions was an ordeal, and boring. Young priests groaned through their Saturday afternoons, leaving their radios, the staccato of horse races, the reports of Sheffield Shield or rugby league at the Sydney Cricket Ground, to do their personal penance in confessional boxes too hot in summer, too cold in winter. Then a quick meal and their Saturday-evening stints in the box began, with all the banal confessions of disobedience, small theft, secret desire, shifty touches, and self-soiling. Frank Darragh, a young man of quieter disposition than the other curates, had had an early experience which caused him not to think so cynically, either of the boxes or of those who entered them in piety or desperate guilt. It had occurred on St. Patrick's Day 1939, a few days after Hitler invaded Czechoslovakia. It was, insofar as any day ever was in the seminary, a day of special meals in the refectory, and a day of remission from the Lenten fast which had recently made the seminary bill of fare more frugal than ever. But with an abscessed tooth, he had not been able to do much feasting and was walking down the long driveway towards Darley Road, with a pass from the rector, to go to the dentist. Because he was a pale, lean-faced young man close to being ordained a priest, he would be treated free and for God's love by either of the chatty Cusack brothers, who had a dentistry practice down the hill in Manly. His naive soul was in some turmoil that day, and it was not to do with missing what passed in the seminary's dour cuisine as a special meal. It was this: should there be a war, he would feel he was being tested to become a volunteer, as his father, Sergeant Darragh, had been in 1915. That which in him made him relish the communal life of the seminary would dispose him, he believed, to enjoy the ordered fraternity of the army. He could tell this from the demeanor of his recently deceased father, who had had a lung condition as a result of both a shrapnel wound and gas intake, but whose eyes had gleamed beneath his freckled dome whenever visitors mentioned the life they had shared in Great War rest camps, after having come alive out of the line. At other times, Darragh's father was politely secretive, yet then uttered unexpected war tales, stories in which Darragh thought absurdity and savagery swamped the humor his father thought to be the real point. From all this, the child Darragh supposed the Great War to have been the most exalting, horrifying, humbling, and valid stage of his father's life. In both darkness and light, it was the measure of who he was. And thus, Darragh's mother said once, there were dead men in France and Flanders who knew his father best, better than she and Frank did. The truth of his father was dug down with the bones of valiant fallen into the soil of unreachable places with names like Bullecourt, Hamel, Albert, Mont St. Quentin. And now that war asserted itself again, thought Darragh the student, how can I be measured? Within a year he would be a priest. He feared that those who did not understand would consider him an evader of warrior duties, of the duty of being measured. As silly as such a feeling might have seemed to worldlier men, on the way to the dentist it rankled within his innocent chest and ate his virgin heart. Before he had traversed the long driveway with its deep-green sentries of Norfolk pine, and as he approached the iron gates with their wrought designs of harps, miters, and Celtic crosses, from the archbishop's house on the far side of the road emerged an arduously creeping old priest. He was a familiar sight on the bitumen surface between the archbishop's house and the seminary driveway, and local trucks had been known to steer around him considerately as he stood, contemplatively catatonic, in the midst of the road. It always seemed as if, in walking, the old man was held back by a gravity greater than that of earth. The story was that he had flung incarnate evil, the Devil, out of souls in China when he was a young missionary. Now, in vengeance, the Devil and his minions fiercely delayed the old fellow as he crossed Darley Road on his way to the St. Patrick's Day feast. It had been known for him to take three hours to pass four hundred yards up the driveway, and students who encountered him knew better than to extend a hand to him and thus enroll themselves in the close combat between him and the Evil One. All Darragh, with a dental appointment in the temporal world at two o'clock, said was "Hello, Monsignor, Happy St. Patrick's," to the old man, who was at this time as at most inhabiting another scale of time and place, and passed on. Darragh accepted that, though many inches taller--indeed, nearly six feet--he was an insignificant figure in the exorcist's landscape. But before he had gone five paces past the barely moving old fellow, he heard a thunderous voice emerge. "Wait!" Darragh turned and the old man had him fixed with two blazing eyes set in his blocklike Irish head, a skull which seemed to come from another age, from the thirteenth century--reputedly the greatest of centuries, Darragh knew, apart from the diseases people had, of course. The old man's eyes were exactly the sort of eyes which, seconds before or eons ago, had transfixed the Evil One himself. "You, son!" the old priest further roared. Darragh stopped, and his callow, student soul blazed in his face. He was not ready yet for such an august summons. "Monsignor?" he pleaded. He could not tell what would be demanded of him, but his pre-dentist nervousness was gone, replaced by a terror more absolute and transcendent. "You must be a merciful confessor!" It sounded as if the old man had been struck by a message from another sphere, a suggestion that Darragh, unless warned, would not be at all merciful. Darragh took his black hat off and straightened the black tie he hoped soon to exchange for a clerical collar. "I pray I will be, Monsignor," he assured the old man. But the exorcist waved his hands in a cut-out-the-claptrap way. "You must be a merciful confessor!" he insisted. "Yes," said a terrified Darragh. He knew this answer had no chance of satisfying the terrifying old exorcist. "Help me," he heard himself bleat like a despicable creature, a coward, a sinner, a silly boy as well. Though the monsignor did not answer, the fury went out of his eyes, and he seemed content that an essential message had been passed. Turning back to apply himself again to the driveway, and advancing by millimeters, he might make the main building by pudding. This was the most exalted message Darragh had received in all his preparation for the priesthood. As a revelation, it suited him. He'd carried from childhood a sense of the augustness and aura of the sacrament of penance. He was aware of how the penitent, having been absolved, emerged into a new and better light. A trivial Saturday afternoon in a remote place called New South Wales--remote from God's apparent eye, anyhow--was connected to eternity by the exercise of this sacrament so mocked by an unknowing world, so essential to the inner peace of a pilgrim soul. And, in the summer of '41-'42, now that Darragh had been ordained and was Father Frank Darragh, he was still an enthusiastic confessor, and recognized an extra radiance to the light of day, or on rainy winter afternoons an unexpected warmth about the shadowy penitential pews, as he made his way to his confessional box on the western side of the church. He was thus secretly at a loss at Monday tennis, he did not try to contribute to the ironic classifications of Saturday penitents his confreres came up with. He sat, he smiled, he listened without adding anything. He was well respected by his fellow priests for smiling and holding his tongue. And he was a merciful confessor. "My aunt says old Frank's got armies of sinners lining up outside his box," said a smiling tennis-champion curate from Hurstville, as if to have armies of sinners was just typical of Frank Darragh. "Of course he does," said one of the other muscular young priests. "If I'd robbed a bank, I'd want to go to Frank." "Or if you ran away with a housekeeper?" "You haven't seen our housekeeper." Their waspishness had fondness to it. They respected that mixture of secretiveness and warmth of nature that he had inherited from his late father. And the parishioners knew this too. It was not a wonder that the lines outside his confessional occupied perhaps a sixth of the seating in the church. Entering the church with Monsignor Carolan, who manned the confessional on the east side of St. Margaret's, his name above the door--Monsignor V. J. Carolan, Parish Priest--and Darragh himself, the curate, occupying the hotter box on the western side, Darragh was half embarrassed to see the extent to which the four or five pews of his penitents outnumbered those outside his parish priest's box. He took no glory in it, because that would be the most stupid vanity. And he knew most experienced priests mocked men who attracted too many penitents. It was a sign of some weakness in a priest-confessor, and a characteristic of a particular type of young one. Nor did Monsignor Carolan, his threads of hair sleek across his fine skull, in any way envy Frank. "You'll have to put in for overtime, Frank," Carolan would tell him, all without an edge to his voice. As a confessor the monsignor appealed to men like himself, grizzled old jokers from Homebush or Strathfield who wanted to be absolved for bread-and-butter sins--taking the Divine Name in vain, making an unseemly joke about an office girl to a companion--all without fuss. Men blessedly unburdened by vaster guilt. Pragmatic, faithful, self-certain fathers of families. Women, too, of similar sunny and practical cast of mind. Monsignor Carolan's finance committee generally went to him to be shriven. To Darragh, merciful confessor, came many souls troubled by war. Terrible questions had been generated by the time. Men who wanted to know whether, should the Japanese come, they had divine leave to kill their wives and daughters to save them from violation. When Frank conventionally told them that they must trust in the will of God, which cannot be foreseen by humans, he could feel the warmth of doubt begin to rise from them, like condensed water from some scorched surface. He would say, because it was true, "I know I'm a young man, and I do not have your experience. But it seems to me that in these times, when we can predict nothing, the safest road is blind faith. It will give us all more light than any prediction will." He would say also, "You must depend on God to save you from such terrible acts. He understands why you are tempted. But He wants you to be hopeful! It's not as if the Japanese have captured Singapore." It was not yet the case, he should have said. These Japanese, who had made so many Jesuit martyrs in the sixteenth century! Could it be believed that in plain old Strathfield, amongst the Federation houses or against the red brick wall of St. Margaret's, they would convert himself and Monsignor Carolan into similar martyrs? His own honest fear as a mere human animal moved frankly in him, and the men who were considering the murder of those nearest to them felt he had taken their impulse off them and onto himself, and were consoled. To Frank Darragh's confessional too came, these fraught days, a fair number of girls from the bush who had come down to Sydney to work in war factories far from the control imposed by their severe country fathers. They were bewildered, intrigued, delighted, and morally confused by their first kisses and caresses at the hands of more-traveled and opportunistic soldiers and civilians. As for wives and husbands, the keen chance of Japanese invasion had made people not more wary but more reckless. Darragh knew what was said of priests in these matters--they knew nothing of marriage yet arrogantly traced out the law for lovers and the married. His closest physical contact with a woman had been a blunt and clumsy kiss he had landed on the cheek of a Rose Bay convent girl when he was sixteen. It had heated his blood, but it had not caused him to suffer one of those stupefying erections. And that, apart from the love of his mother and Aunt Madge, was all! Though he would admit without quibble that to advise on matters of marriage and physical desire he needed guidance from the Holy Spirit, he believed it to be superabundantly forthcoming to him in his role as confessor. Sometimes he was surprised by the tenor of the advice which rose unbidden to his lips. To the new race of female riveters, sheet-metal workers, welders, for example, these green and pleasant girls who would have remained under their parents' care but for the war, he might say this: "God has given you in trust the incalculable treasure of your womanhood. Since He has given you free will, you must honor and guard yourself in his place. Remember that one day you will be a grandmother, and your grandchildren will look to what you did when you were young for a model of their own youth." More conventionally he would tell them to turn to the Virgin Mother of Jesus for succor, counsel, and example. The troubles of the war-working girls were nothing to those of soldiers' wives. Sydney suburbs were populated by American soldiers who had arrived well-fed and confident straight from the United States without passing through the filters of war. They had not been humbled by the defeats and hardships of the Philippines. They wore sharp-creased uniforms unstained by battle, yet, as far as fabric could, promising gallantry. They had access to hosiery and chocolate, both of which seemed to mean so much to women, and would kindly bring into the lounge rooms and kitchens of every parish the glossy magazines of American Mammon. What might be most dangerous was that compared to Australian men, the Americans were said to be courtly. Occasionally, after Sunday Mass, one or two of them would present themselves at the sacristy door with a pleasing frankness, courtesy, and respect. One GI had given Darragh a stipend of a pound note and asked him to say Mass for "me and the boys of my section." Darragh told the soldier the normal Mass offering in Australia was five to ten shillings. But the boy--he could have been little more than twenty--said, "No, no, Father. I want you to say a real good Mass." This mixture of innocence and worldliness was of a different order than that of Australians, and that gave the Americans fascination. Excerpted from The Office of Innocence: A Novel by Thomas Keneally All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.