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)

John Clanchy, Sisters (#BookReview)

John Clanchy, SistersLocal writer John Clanchy has appeared a couple of times in this blog – as the author of the short story collection, Six: New tales (my review), and as the person launching Stephanie Buckle’s collection, Habits of silence (my review) – but never for one of his novels, until now. Sisters has an interesting history: it was originally drafted at the La Muse writers retreat in southern France in 2008, and has now been published by the retreat publisher, La Muse Books.

Given I introduced the versatile, and too little known, Clanchy in my review of Six, I’ll turn straight to discussing this latest novel of his. Briefly, Sisters tells the story of three late middle-aged sisters and the month they spend together at the family home on the north-central coast of New South Wales where the eldest, Sarah, now lives. The other two sisters, Grace and Rose, are twins. There is a mystery about why Sarah has asked them to come, though Grace is pretty sure she knows why, and we readers are pretty sure we know what it is that Grace believes she knows! It is, however, a little more complex than that – as you would expect. So, the first thing to say is that there is a plot.

The next thing to say is the obvious one – this is a book about sisters. There are, in fact, very few men, and I wondered how Clanchy had managed to capture women so well, because the book succeeds or fails on the basis of his ability to convince us with his women. Well, I had forgotten his dedication, which is “To my sisters Mary, Helen, and Elizabeth / and to Brigid, as ever”. (Brigid is his partner, I believe). I don’t know whether he has brothers too, but clearly he has spent a lot a lot of time with women. No wonder he writes them so well – and with such sensitivity.

So, pretty quickly their individual characters are established. Sarah, as the oldest, is the bossy planner who expects to control their time together. Indeed, she’s orchestrated this month because she has “thinks to discuss … things … to tell.” Grace, the older twin by 49 minutes (!), is widowed and has had breast cancer. She’s a counselor and is seen as the empathetic, reliable one. Rose, by contrast, has had a few husbands and even now is pining for her latest lover back in the city. She can be flighty and a bit oblivious, but can surprise Grace with her perception nonetheless. Clanchy captures the shifting alignments and allegiances between the three beautifully – Sarah’s separation from the twins, Sarah and Grace’s protectiveness towards Rose, Rose and Grace’s natural connection, and so on.

Gradually, Clanchy develops his plot, interweaving the sisters’ time together with stories of their childhood. While they were relatively happy, their growing up was not without drama, recalling Tolstoy’s famous opening to Anna Karenina. Their disabled four-year-old brother drowned in a cave at the beach while under their care, and their father left home for France to live with his mistress. How and why all this happened, what they made of these events as young people and now as adults, and who knew and knows what, underpins the plot. Mystery and secrecy rule. The end, when it comes, is fairly predictable, but then this is not unusual in a well-constructed story. It’s the journey to that point, and the little details in the telling, that make most books worth reading. Here, it’s also the warmth and generosity in the tone that make it such an engaging read – particularly if you are of a certain age!

Of course, Sisters is about more than its plot of unfolding secrets – and the epigraph provides a clue. It comes from TS Eliot’s Four quartets: “We are born with the dead: / See, they return, and bring us with them.” Besides the fact that an old death drives the plot, there is the bigger issue of mortality. The sisters are in their mid-to-late sixties, and one has already had cancer. Rose believes, in fact, that Sarah wants them there to talk about wills. She doesn’t, but mortality is behind her request for them to come – and awareness of mortality imbues much of the sisters’ thoughts and communications over the month. Early on, in Chapter 3, Sarah shows them the work she’s done to restore their (appropriately named) Grandfather Forrest’s orchard:

‘I had to rip the old one out,’ Sarah said without turning her head. ‘It was done for. Over sixty – and over the hill,’ she added. Reminding each of them of a personal fact.

Supporting the plot and theme is Clanchy’s writing. It flows easily from description to dialogue and its various, sometimes funny, set scenes, all supported by evocative turns of phrase. Here’s lively Rose “within whose house of memory window after window was now flying open of its own accord”. And this is thoughtful Grace:

The past was another kind of train journey. One undertaken with only random glimpses of the landscape outside to anchor or trouble the memory …

Memory is, of course, part of the picture – what we remember, how we remember, when we remember, and who remembers what.

There are a few other characters who make brief appearances – those from the past via the sisters’ memories and two policemen, particularly the young, uncomfortable Constable Demko who first visits the sisters to check on neighbours’ reports of nightly activity in the orchard, “Music, people running about, loud voices, laughter …”. It is, of course, the sisters enjoying their summer evenings, “the original Bacchantes” as Sarah tells him.

And here I’ll leave it. Sisters is a gentle, thoughtful novel – sad, but realistically wise. It’s about life and death, regrets and missed opportunities, secrets and guilt, and most of all about love and forgiveness. On the surface, it seems simple – it’s certainly an easy read and it could feel clichéd with its family-secrets-driven plot – but in fact it’s a philosophical book from an older writer reflecting on how we make sense of our lives. His conclusion, I’d say, is that the answer is in the quality of the relationships we forge, and the generosity with which we maintain them. This is the stuff of life.

John Clanchy
Labastide Esparbairenque: La Muse Books, 2017
ISBN: 9791097233006 (eBook)

(Review copy courtesy La Muse Books)

John Clanchy, Six: New tales (Review)

ClanchySixFinlayLloydJohn Clanchy, like Julian Davies whose Crow mellow I recently reviewed, is another Australian writer I’d heard of but not read until his piece in the Canberra centenary anthology, The invisible thread. What a treasure trove that has turned out to be! Anyhow, titled “The gunmen”, Clanchy’s contribution was an excerpt from his first novel, The life of the land, published in 1985. He’s a versatile writer, it seems, crossing genres (such as crime and mystery) and form (novels, short stories, and non-fiction). Six, the book I’ve just read, is a collection of six short stories – long short stories, in fact. An earlier collection of his, Vincenzo’s Garden, won the 2005 Queensland Premier’s Literary Award for Short Stories and the 2006 ACT Book of the Year. If it’s anything like Six, I can see why.

But, before I get onto the book itself, a little about the publisher. Finlay Lloyd describes itself as a

a non profit publisher dedicated to encouraging imaginative and challenging writing, to subtly innovative design and to celebrating the pleasures of print on paper in an electronic age. Without the commercial imperative of most publishers, we are able to champion ideas and authors for their intrinsic interest and quality. We support independent bookshops as local outlets for these ideas and authors. Our books are printed in Australia to support the local industry (by Griffin Press and Ligare Book Printing).

It’s the “subtly innovative design” I particularly want to mention here (while also appreciating the rest of their philosophy). I’ve handled now about four of their books and they are beautiful. The shape varies, with some, such as Six, being long and thin. Subtly different (just like all planes!), and nice to hold. Six has an additional special touch – the first page of each of the stories is on slightly whiter, finer paper. There’s no table of contents, but you can quickly locate each of the stories by flicking the book through to these pages. These are simple things, but they make you feel that the book in your hand has been produced with love and care.

Anyhow, onto the book itself. I found all six stories completely engaging, imaginative, and one, surprisingly, laugh-out-loud funny. I say surprisingly because it’s rare that I’d read a truly funny short story, although there’s often one or two in a collection that make me smile. This story, “Slow burn”, is, I suppose, a “mere male” story, and, while I don’t really approve of “mere male” stories – they can be somewhat condescending – this one is too funny, too beautifully controlled, not to make me laugh. It’s all about Daryl Turtle who is “ill. Dangerously, perhaps fatally ill” and his wish to make himself a comforting piece of toast to go with the thermos coffee his thoughtful wife has left for him.

The other five stories – “Slow burn” is the third in the collection – are more serious. They deal with contemporary situations, a father who turns out to be gay and another who is discovered to have had a second family in another country. There’s a husband whose affair with an indigenous woman exposes an ugliness that shocks him. And there’s a powerful story about a couple whose daughter was killed overseas in a Bali-style bombing. These are the sorts of situations you read or hear about and wonder how the people at the centre of them cope. Clanchy explores just this, with sensitivity and authenticity, teasing out the underlying humanity of his characters. Whether they are a philandering husband, or rebellious daughter, a grieving father or lonely postman, we empathise and are encouraged to see the extent of human capacity to accommodate the unexpected. To put it another way, Clanchy’s characters tend to be confronted with seemingly black-and-white situations but find themselves capable of recognising the greys and responding, in most cases, generously and/or with growth.

The stories are not tricksy. In other words, they are not the sorts of short stories that you get to the end and wonder, “what was that about?” This may come from Clanchy’s experience in writing genre – two collaborative crime thrillers with another Canberra writer, Mark Henshaw. It may also relate to the fact that these are long-form short stories. (My rough calculation is that they are around 15,000 words, some shorter, some longer, whereas short stories are typically half that or less.) You may have noticed that, with the exception of “Slow burn”, I haven’t named the stories I’ve referred to. This is to avoid spoilers implicit in my comments. That said, while each story has a strong narrative arc with clear plot points, the focus is not really the plot. It’s the characters – which is where my interest lies and why I enjoyed the book so much.

I also enjoyed Clanchy’s writing. It’s clear and direct, and abounds with sharp observation. There’s humour, even in the serious stories, and fun wordplay. Here’s a description I loved:

Dot runs the general store and post office in town. She hates the sound of ‘Dot’ and you won’t get the time out of day if you call her that. ‘Dot is what a pen does to an eye,’ she says to anyone who doesn’t know, ‘and I’m an optometrist’s daughter, so call me May.’ And since she’s in charge of the town mail, that’s exactly what people do, though most people think that Dotty would suit her better. (from “True glue”)

As I neared the end of the last story, I was reminded of one of my favourite quotes, Wallace Stegner’s “Civilisations grow by agreements and accommodations and accretions, not by repudiations” in Angle of repose. In Six, as in most fiction of course, the characters are challenged by some event or situation and need to decide how they will respond. Stegner’s quote can, I believe, be applied not just to civilisations but to relationships and, indeed, character. Six evokes this perfectly. I really don’t know why Clanchy is not better known.

John Clanchy
Six: New tales
Braidwood: Finlay Lloyd, 2014
ISBN: 9780987592934

(Review copy courtesy Finlay Lloyd)