John Clanchy, In whom we trust (#BookReview)

Book coverMy first question when I read a book of historical fiction is why? And so it was for John Clanchy’s latest novel In whom we trust, which is set in Victoria around World War 1, albeit is not about the war. It is, in fact, about a Catholic home for orphaned children, St Barnabas, and three people associated with it, visiting chaplain Father Pearse, and two young people, inmate Thomas Stuart and scullery maid Molly Preston. Of course, when I say “about” St Barnabas, I don’t really mean that. St Barnabas frames the novel, provides its context, but the novel itself is about something far more complex, which gets me back to my opening question, why?

Now there are, to my mind, two main responses to historical fiction. One is to see it as something in the past, something that we might learn from but that overall we can leave firmly in the past. The other is to see its relevance to the present, to look at past actions or events, with the perspective of time, in order to reflect on now. This response also brings in those universals we like to talk about, those things about us that history (or time) doesn’t change. John Clanchy’s In whom we trust demands this second response: it asks us to look at the institutional abuse of children and its long history, and to see the human factors that enabled it then right on through to now. As Hilary Mantel has said, “all historical fiction is really contemporary fiction; you write out of your own time.”

In his Author’s Note and Acknowledgement, Clanchy thanks publisher Finlay Lloyd for “taking on a difficult book such as this”. What “difficult” does he mean? The difficult content or the difficulty of its execution? Probably both. The content is, of course, difficult. We have St Barnabas run by the tortured and torturing Brother Stanislaus. He is the epitome of the old-school hell-fire-and-damnation Brother. Ravaged by the Church’s constraints (particularly abstinence), he twists the scriptures, the theology, to justify his abuse of those in his care, who include, of course, Thomas and Molly.

However, this book is also “difficult” in its construction, which is not the same as saying that it’s difficult to read, because the story flows beautifully, despite frequent changes in voice or perspective. The story is told from three main – and easily differentiated – points of view: the third person subjective perspectives of Father Pearse and Thomas, and the first person voice of Molly via her diary.

The narrative is framed by a meeting between Thomas and Pearse, at the latter’s parish in Sale, some three years after the abuse had occurred. Gradually, through their conversations and private reflections, and through the insertion of Molly’s diary entries, the back story comes out and Thomas’s request of Pearse is revealed. At this point the diary entries finish and the narrative moves into a simpler chronology as Pearse works to fulfil his promise to Thomas, who has by now enlisted and wants this thing done before he leaves. What he wants done cannot right the wrongs of the past but will hopefully help prevent them continuing in the future. And that’s about all I’ll say about the plot.

“the strange, savage world”

That Clanchy can make such subject matter both engrossing and deeply moving is down to his writing and his understanding of humanity. The novel opens in Father Pearse’s head:

‘There was a boy came while you were out, Father Pearse,’ Mrs Reilly said. And stood.
The woman wanted strangling.

I loved this. So simple, but already we’ve learnt a lot, the main thing being, as the rest of the chapter confirms, that Father Pearse is not your warm-hearted priest. He’s an impatient, easily irritated one, so, when the boy, Thomas, appears, we are predisposed to like him more than we like Pearse. As the novel progresses, Thomas firmly but gently brings Pearse around to being – to use modern parlance – the best version of himself! In other words, Pearse, who is not a bad man, just a weak, cowardly one who “means no real harm”, is brought to see the right and humane thing to do.

This doesn’t come easily though. He is suspicious of and resistant to this trouble-making Thomas. He doesn’t trust him! And here is cornerstone of the novel, trust (as you might have guessed from the novel’s title.) There are many layers of trust in the novel. Clanchy shows how trust develops between people, such as between Molly and Thomas, between Thomas and his indigenous friend from St Barnabas Benton, and, eventually, between Pearse and Thomas. There is trust in authority and institutions, such as that St Barnabas will care for the children entrusted to it. There is trust in forms and rituals, like the confessional. And there is trust that people will do what they promise or undertake to do. All of these – their successes and failures, and the nuances surrounding them – are explored in this novel. The reality of the challenge becomes clear to Pearse late in the novel:

Trust. That was the crux of it. How was anyone meant to find a path through this forest of competing trusts?

Muddying this path are competing – or, shall we just call a spade a spade and say twisted – values and priorities. These include the age-old issue of abstinence and the inviolability of the confessional, and the need, as Pearse’s Bishop makes perfectly clear, to protect “our Mother Church”.

Through all this, Clanchy weaves a compelling, painfully true story about human beings – weak ones, arrogant ones, damaged ones, wise ones, loyal ones. Of all these people, it’s the young Thomas who has the clearest vision. He has, recognises Pearse, the

trick of putting his finger on truths so obvious that most other people, in search for something which redounded more to their own credit, looked right past.

And now, before I conclude, something about the writing, because it is this, alongside Clanchy’s understanding of human motivations and relationships, that make this “difficult” book also a pleasure to read. Clanchy’s ability to nail his points with a few words can take your breath away:

… then Thomas Stuart was equally checked by the massive theological boulder which the priest now rolled into his path.


The crimson cloth of the Bishop’s patience was rapidly becoming threadbare.

The vernacular he creates for Molly’s diary – including words like “tumple” and “fumply” – gives her colour and character. There’s also some clever word play and light ironic touches, not to mention the little biblical in-joke about doubting Thomas, because in this book it’s the priest who doubts Thomas more than vice versa. Indeed, it’s the careful, sure way Clanchy develops the see-sawing doubting-trusting relationship between Pearse and Thomas that provides the novel’s backbone and interest.

There are of course no simple answers to the dilemma facing Father Pearse, and the ending we get is the only one it could be. It’s to Clanchy’s credit that he doesn’t opt for the easy feel-good fix. There are wins along the way but Clanchy knows, and we know, that it would be morally suspect and historically inaccurate to provide the ending we’d like. In whom we trust is a powerful and wonderful read.

John Clanchy
In whom we trust
Braidwood: Finlay Lloyd, 2019
ISBN: 9780994516558

(Review copy courtesy Finlay Lloyd)

26 thoughts on “John Clanchy, In whom we trust (#BookReview)

  1. Super review. One thing that I am getting out of your community is that there seems to be lots of complex theme and characters. When an author is skilled, such complexity can produce very worthwhile and thoughtful fiction.

  2. I didn’t know Mantel had said that. She and Rose Tremain are, to me, the queens of historical fiction (and I loathe>/i> both writers’ contemporary novels !): your “to see its relevance to the present, to look at past actions or events, with the perspective of time, in order to reflect on now” is completely apt for such epics as “A Place of Greater Safety”.
    So I must suppose that your failure to win me over to this book is due to an overly Catholic upbringing, accompanied by a reluctance to be reminded of it in any way (a family of priests and nuns is a frightful thing).
    In looking up Clanchy – yes, you did succeed there, ST – I find he writes on matters of relationships, by and large, and interestingly. So I might try one of those instead ! 🙂

  3. Thanks for your great review, Sue. This is an excellent book. It is both moving and disturbing. It reminds us of what we already know and have been told, but it brings this story of abuse to light in such a compelling and beautiful way. I think John Clanchy is to be commended for taking on this subject matter, and doing it with such compassion and insight into human nature. The layers of character and narrative are beautifully constructed, and the writing is elegant and masterful. You are correct about the ending – it was the only possible finale. Congratulations to john Clancy.

  4. You will not. In fact I read this review a few hours ago and didn’t know how to respond. What can a writer of HF add to the testimonies of all the witnesses to multiple Royal Commissions, in Australia, Ireland and the US. He can only be derivative of them. We don’t give the same power to the Church (or churches) these days, to bring up children and I fear the many children now imprisoned suffer tortures of a different kind altogether, though similarly horrible.

    • Haha, I didn’t think so – didn’t expect to – Bill! That was Lisa’s idea! We have a different view I think of how and why we read. Writers of any fiction – historical or otherwise – can, for me, take us into surprising or even just different corners and flesh out the humanity (and I mean that in all its connotations) of all involved.

    • This novel was originally written about 10 years ago and tucked away. The author brought it out again because the events of the RC deserved an origin story, which this is. I think you’ll find however that because of his own background of being educated by Jesuits, that the equally interesting piece (to my mind) is the institutional tension between the Brother’s and Clergy power structure within the Church. It’s that understanding rather than the more obvious institutional abuse angle that you can gain from HF. One remark on the comment that there were no friendships between indigenous and whites – the central point is that both the individuals are marginalised by circumstance, and these people “find” each other (disclosure, I know the author).

      • Thanks David for filling that in. As you say, the church power structure is an important issue in the novel, but I only touch on it briefly as part of the trust issue. So much to discuss in this novel.

        In my reply to Bill and Neil, I said that lonely and isolated children will find each other, and there’s evidence for that. I saw isolated as encompassing marginalisation – both Thomas and Benton being outsiders/marginalised – but the word marginalised makes that specific point so I appreciate your making that clear.

  5. A wonderful review of a superb novel.

    It’s interesting to see prospective readers being put off by the ‘subject matter’.
    I do sympathise with M-R for suffering from the composition of her family to the
    extent that she can’t read about priests etc. But by not reading ‘In Whom We Trust’
    she is missing out on a literary experience that could have some effect of healing

    • Thanks very much Carmel … I’m glad you liked the book too. I like your point that the literary experience could contribute to healing wounds. It would be great to think so, and for me, I think it can (not in this case of course because I haven’t experienced this.)

    • What can I say, Bill? Damned if you do, damned if you don’t. I’m not sure what you mean here by “rewriting history”. Are people “rewriting” history or trying to “retrieve” history?

      • I think Bill’s point is that we didn’t have indigenous friends, so to write a story where someone does is historically inaccurate. I certainly didn’t when I was growing up. The closest I came to something exotic was Eastern European migrant children in high school, and I don’t think I really understood what was going on then. But at least if I wrote a story of the 60s which included migrant children, it would not be rewriting history.

        • I understand what you are saying Neil – I lived in Mt Isa in the 60s and had indigenous schoolmates but we didn’t really mix in any close way. However, I don’t agree with what you and Bill are saying. I think the experience of middle-class white males is a bit different to how an isolated outsider like Thomas may feel in terms of whom he befriends? Also I have read histories – biographies, for example – that use diaries and letters as evidence to show lonely or isolated white children making friends with indigenous children. It happened. Here is an example: “Reflecting on her childhood friendships forged at Wellington in the first two decades of the 1900s, Ruth Heathcock recalled, ‘I went to school with Aboriginal children. Skin colour? It was all the same to me. I didn’t even know it existed.” (from searching Google Scholar: Karen Hughes, “‘I’d grown up as a child amongst natives’: Ruth Heathcock (1901-1995) – disrupting settler-colonial orthodoxy through friendship and cross-cultural literacy in creolised spaces of the Australian contact zone”, IN Outskirts: Feminisms Along The Edge Vol 28, 2013.)

          It may not have been common, but I can’t agree that it is rewriting history to say that such friendships occurred.

  6. Oh, this sounds good. I like you division of historical fiction. I much prefer to read the second kind you mention. The first, I sometimes find, tends towards using the past as a kind of exotic location to help boost a story that wasn’t all that interesting on its own.

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