Keneally's 'Innocence': complex, human

March 16, 2003|By Peter Temes | By Peter Temes,Special to the Sun

Office of Innocence, by Thomas Keneally. Doubleday. 352 pages. $25.

Every year there are more books about World War II. The pace of production seems only to quicken, yet few do more than revisit the old cliches about times and places, hearts and minds. Novelist Thomas Keneally is a welcome exception to the rule of the over-familiar in this literary category. Particularly with his novel Schindler's List, he has demonstrated an ability to find new stories to tell of the war's impact on the souls of men and women. With his new book, Office of Innocence, he again brings the reader something wholly new and entirely worthwhile.

The young Rev. Frank Darragh is the central character of the novel, and is as close as any plausible literary figure can come to the pure embodiment of an idea, in this case the idea of innocence. The reader is witness to Darragh's genuine love of humanity and his pure but unoppressive piety. He is, his monsignor tells him, an excellent confessor, perhaps even too good for his own good at absorbing the sins of others as he offers them release. But his innocence is tested by his circumstances in Australia at the beginning of the war.

Singapore falls to the Japanese early in the book's progress, and the emperor's bombers begin to strike at Australia's cities. Sydney fills with American soldiers. Women whose husbands have gone off to fight in the Pacific and North Africa grasp for comfort from them, and to a lesser degree from Darragh. More tempted by cynicism than by the sins of the flesh, Darragh struggles to offer these women spiritual guidance as he comes to understand, by degrees, that circumstance can change the nature of grace.

As the book opens, young priests lounge in the tropical sun, readying themselves to return to their work taking confessions. Some play tennis; most gossip. The world of priestly fraternity is full of the hale and hearty innocence that always attends groups of young men alone -- that is, without women, without children, without the balance of older souls.

Yet for all the depth of character with which Keneally endows Darragh, it is the women in this book who express the deepest complexity and humanity as they come and go, mostly serving food and confessing sins.

They illustrate dramatically, mostly by their absence, exactly what Darragh and his closed spiritual society of men are missing.

Office of Innocence is not without a bit of the wartime cloak and dagger, but the central story here is about one man's witness to the weaknesses of good people in hard times, through the prism of his own longings to serve.

Darragh's own father had been a soldier in World War I and, as he faded into premature old age, those war memories sustained his sense of pride and purpose. Could Darragh's spiritual service be as vital to the cause of his own generation? The book's final scene suggests that it might, twining together the salvation of a compromised woman's good soul, the capture of enemy agents and the purging of Darragh's unconscious desire for erotic release. A bit neat, perhaps, but part of a whole that enlightens.

Peter Temes is the president of the Antioch New England Graduate School in Keene, N.H., and author of Against School Reform (Ivan R. Dee). He was formerly president of the Great Books Foundation.

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