MY FATHER’S HOUSE. By Joseph O’Connor.

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MY FATHER’S HOUSE. By Joseph O’Connor. Harvill Secker.

On the first page of Joseph O’Connor’s new novel we’re introduced to Delia Kiernan, who’s married to a diplomat, and already older readers may be getting echoes from her name and status – wasn’t Delia Murphy, long familiar to Radio Eireann listeners of the 1950s and 1960s for her extraordinary singing voice, married to an Irish diplomat?

A few pages later, she herself tells us that in Rome in 1943 she had recorded two songs to be released in Ireland. “Yes, I was a professional singer before I was married”, she relates, and as for the songs she had recorded? “I think ‘Danny Boy’ and ‘Boolavogue’. Maybe ‘The Spinning Wheel’. I’d have to check”.

At this point, a mere twelve pages into the novel, I was googling Delia Murphy and learned from a Wikipedia entry that in 1941 her ambassador husband, Thomas J Kiernan, was posted to the Vatican as Irish minister to the Holy See and that, during their time in Rome, Delia assisted Kerry-born Monsignor Hugh O’Flaherty (known as the “Vatican Pimpernel”) in saving the lives of 6,500 Jews and Allied soldiers from the occupying Nazis.

That, in a nutshell, is the story told in this novel. O’Connor’s last book, Shadowplay, was something of an imaginative tour de force, balancing the factual and the fictional in its evocation of the relationship that delevoped between Irish Victorian novelist Bram Stoker and London stage stars Henry Irving and Ellen Terry. And he achieves much the same here, though the new book is overly tricked out by authorial devices and flourishes.

For one thing, there are the various timelines. Most of the 31 chapters relate to the Christmas Eve of 1943 when O’Flaherty and his underground associates are readying themselves for their daring and dangerous rescue mission, and tension builds up as the dwindling countdown nears the crucial hour.

But these are interspersed with chapters relating to BBC archive interviews from twenty years later, along with reminiscences from some of the participants long after the event. These have the effect of letting of letting the reader know who had survived the event, thus dissipating some of the tension.

And the multiplicity of narrative voices also drains away some of the book’s momentum. I counted nine narrators, each of them making claims on the reader’s atttention and some of them needlessly disrupting the story’s flow.

The main narrative thrust centres not on Delia, who mostly remains a minor presence, but on O’Flaherty, a big, bluff, irascible and impatient man, not at all given to polite niceties and wholly incapable of suffering fools with any pretence of tolerance, but a commanding presence throughout.

But other narrative voices are less persuasive. For instance, there’s British undercover operative John May, who as late as page 169 feels obliged to begin his latest spiel to the reader by declaring that “there’s an exam you need to pass if you want to be a London cabbie. Sorts the sheep from the goats. Called ‘The Knowledge’.”

Many readers will have heard of this famed London taxi practice but that doesn’t stop May from going on about it for a page and a half before revealing that “the padre was like that with the churches in Rome”. In other words, Hugh O’Flaherty knew them inside out, just as there “wasn’t a cobblestone in Rome he didn’t know.” Well, he’d been in the Vatican for years, so why wouldn’t he?

But May anyway is a tiresomely stock character, a cheeky-chappie East Ender, who’s seemingly in the book to provide a bit of irreverent colour but has no crucial function, as far as this reader could make out. And much the same could be said of the Contessa Giovanna Landin and of journalist Marianna de Vries, who contribute reminiscences from the 1960s, but who come across as little more than window dressing.

And then there’s the novel’s outright villain, SS Commander Paul Hauptmann, a dedicated torturer of anyone detained by his Gestapo goons, but who’s so one-dimensionally vile as to be hiss-worthy every time he shows up – though there’s an arrestingly tense scene late in the story when O’Flaherty tries to sow doubts in his mind about the loyalty of his wife and children to the Nazi cause.

But then, since 2002’s Star of the Sea onwards, Joseph O’Connor has always known how to tell a story, and when you can get by some of the distracting elements in this new novel, you’ll encounter a thriller of engrossing urgency.

In an afterword, he insists that his book “is first and last a novel” and that “liberties have been taken with facts, characterisations and chronologies”. And he cautions that his novel “is not intended to be a source for students of wartime Rome or the Nazi occupation of Italy”.

But it has done enough to encourage further investigation of this dark part of Italy’s history – and, in the case of this reviewer, to replay Delia Murphy and to marvel once again at her remarkable voice.

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