My 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.
In whom we trust
Braidwood: Finlay Lloyd, 2019
(Review copy courtesy Finlay Lloyd)