This is a strongly written, thought-provoking, and tough novel from one of Canberra's best known and awarded writers, at least in terms of the ACT Book of the Year, with two such awards under his belt already. There may well be a third.
The story is simple and simply ghastly. With few characters and only two main settings, a priest's house and a - seemingly - large orphanage many readers might already be able to anticipate the plot development. A young man, recently enlisted in the Australian Imperial Force to go to war in France, wants first to avenge a crime of horrible proportions and seeks to enlist the priest's help. The priest, ready to retire and already dreaming of a quiet life at home in Ireland, is jolted from his passivity and complacency by the steady questioning and clear thinking of his visitor.
The priest, formerly the chaplain at the orphanage, is thought to be capable of perhaps some human feeling and may be able to help to bring evil to account. It may be a forlorn hope, the reader may suspect it will be a forlorn hope from the outset of the story, but the priest is seen as the young man's only hope. That is what makes this story so bleak. The young man is so intelligent, so determined, so thoughtful, so all-seeing, and yet his task seems entirely beyond him. That is what this novel proposes, it is the brilliance of the writing that allows John Clanchy to pull this off.
There is also a deep and underlying humanity in the story which engages and probably delights the reader. The love that emerges between the two victims of institutional cruelty gives a nobility to their lives that compensates, to some extent, for the evil that is done to them. Both, the boy and the girl, are clever in different ways in working around the system and winning, improbably, some significant victories.
It is not a surprise that the young man enlists in the AIF, in fact it seems consistent with his character as it emerges: strong, ethical, insightful. In passing the reader may wonder how many young men raised in orphanages, of which there were many in Australia at the time, enlisted to fight overseas. The records might be combed to seek an answer to this question but it is doubtful if it can be answered. What a fate though, to be raised not knowing the love of a real family to serve in an army where one might find mates but rarely the depth of genuine love.
Were I to give more details of the story I am sure I would ruin it for many readers and I'm not about to do that because the whole is linked so intricately that to give out one clue could cause all the other elements to come cascading down. The long, almost night-long, scene between the young man and the priest, in the priest's study, dominates the book and seals Clanchy as a writer of great ability and significance.
Rather than relate any more of the story, let me say what this book did to me. I read it almost at a sitting and because of the unusual - but beautiful - shape of the book I have no clear idea how long it is. But it is so hard to put aside. It will lead you to meditation, it must lead you to meditation. How is it that evil, true, core evil can flourish in hearts that are professionally dedicated to love and care. How is it that ideology can beat human dignity every time. How is it that vice will always triumph over virtue, at least in the awful world that the author creates for the reader.
Is it power that is so seductive and so corrosive? Is it a madness driven by loneliness and frustration? Is it an inability to understand real pain and suffering? Is it a simple hatred of otherness, of what is not me? Or is it all or some of these and more?
John Clanchy answers none of these questions but he sets them out with a clarity that is chilling and - almost - repulsive. The reader is spared nothing in the depiction of a violence that is unforgiving and insane and yet the portrait of the young man is so loving and so underpinned by wisdom that there is joy in this book and, remarkably, even some humour.
In Whom We Trust will find its readers because, in this town, and elsewhere, Clanchy is a respected and anticipated writer. But it deserves a much wider audience than that. Here is a book of great relevance to the times through which Australians are currently living. As we debate the justice system and juries, as we try to come to terms with the collapse of authority that we once trusted and respected we need to meditate, deeply, as John Clanchy is inviting us to do. This sober and sombre conversation is just beginning.
- Michael McKernan is a Canberra historian.
- In Whom We Trust, by John Clanchy. Finlay Lloyd. $28.