Tom Keneally’s Crimes of the Father

Tom Keneally, Crimes of the Father (Vintage 2016)

crimes.jpgPerhaps a novel is just what’s needed after the news cycle has rolled on, to keep our minds and hearts alive to painful issues such as child sexual abuse in religious institutions. That, it seems to me, is the need The Crimes of the Father aims to fill.

It’s a stranger-comes-to-town story. Father Frank Docherty was stripped of his priestly role by the Sydney Cardinal in the early 1970s because his politics were contrary to the prelate’s conservatism. As a member of a religious Order, he found a new life in Canada as a priest and academic psychologist, and came to specialise in cases of clerical child abuse. In 1996 he returns to Sydney to address a conference, and finds himself embroiled as adviser and advocate with not one but two people who were abused as children by a Monsignor of the diocese who also happens to be the brother of a woman he has loved, chastely, for more than 20 years.

There are lectures, legal arguments, and excursions into the history of the Catholic Church in the aftermath of Vatican Two. Tom Keneally has clearly done conscientious research, and in that sense is trustworthy. But at about the midpoint I was muttering, ‘Show, don’t tell,’ and three quarters of the way through, ‘Write what you know!’ I just didn’t believe in Frank Docherty’s inner life, or that of the accused abuser or the abuse survivors. The dialogue rarely sounds like conversation. The narrative feels like a survey of the literature, a tableau where you might reasonably expect a drama.

Though Keneally’s skill as a story teller is powerful enough that I kept reading, it’s the brief preface, in which he writes about his own relationship to the Catholic Church, that delivers the strongest emotional punch. The rest is too schematic, the characters too much at arm’s length, the action too often described rather than enacted. And as our hero flies off into the sunrise, the necessary final twist is a convenient deus ex machina.

Perhaps because I had just read Kim Mahood’s brilliant Position Doubtful, this unengaged quality struck me with particular force in the section where Sarah, a survivor of sexual abuse who has temporarily become Sister Constance, spends time on a remote Aboriginal community. She visits the outstation of a man called Douglas (‘that was his European name, anyhow’), with some of his relatives. Here are the first paragraphs of her visit:

Douglas was reserved but welcoming. His habitation, an elegantly constructed lean-to, lay at the foot of a ridge in which the entire range of umber and yellow rocks were exhibited. His wife was profoundly black and limpid-eyed, and there was just her and him there – the kids were learning white-fella stuff in Cairns, he told them. He had a kerosene refrigerator and a telephone that hung on a pole and ran off solar panels. He was a man of past, present and future.
—-The relatives sat about on a rug in front of the lean-to and spoke in their language – part guttural, with some sounds like bird calls – her ignorance about which  Constance had never felt more acutely than at this moment. The host, his wife and his relatives drank tea from enamel mugs. A stranger at the feast, she did too.

And that’s as vividly as we ever get to see Douglas and his unnamed wife and relatives. Of course, they’re incidental characters (and I should mention that ‘their language’ has been previously identified as Guugu Timithirr), but the writing is not completely untypical. It might work as a film script, because the actors would flesh it out, but there’s not much flesh in the written form.

Compare this from the Author’s Note:

At an immature age I chose to study for the priesthood. and I would like to put on record my thanks for the more generous and open-handed aspects of that training. It was not, however, an education designed to encourage a callow young man to achieve full maturity as a sentient and generous male adult. I was too innocent to understand that the education to make me a celibate strayed easily into stereotyping half of my species – women – as a perilous massed threat to priestly purity; or that the attendant emotional dwarfing could create, encourage or license the young men whose abusive tendencies are mourned in this novel.

I so wanted to read the novel that this seems to promise. But I was disappointed: those young men make no appearance except as manipulators lifted straight from Keneally’s evidently punctilious research. No light is shed on their motivations as individual, breathing human beings. And the same is only slightly less true of the survivors.

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