I didn’t want to read this book and, in fact, had no real intention to do so, until I was asked to provide an opinion on it. Having said that, I have to confess that I found Keneally’s book a strange combination of challenging, disappointing, and frustrating. Let me address those in reverse order.
As a priest, I found some of the ‘errors’ depicted by Keneally on supposedly current liturgical and canonical discipline very frustrating. They were, in some cases, trivial ‘errors’, once which any other reader less familiar with the intricacies of these things might miss or gloss over. I fully own that the frustration belongs entirely to myself and, having owned it, it doesn’t really detract from the overall impact of the book.
Which brings me to the disappointment. Having read many of Keneally’s books over the years, and been thoroughly captured by his vivid writing style, I found this particular effort slightly disappointing. Compared to his other works it didn’t have the same ‘feel’, the same engagement that I have experienced in other works by this particular author. That disappointment may have something to do with the subject matter perhaps, or it could simply be that this particular contribution from Keneally wasn’t one of his better ones. I would like to think it was the former rather than the latter.
Which means that I now turn to the challenging subject matter that Keneally has chosen to address in this novel. The scourge of child sexual abuse in our society is something I still think many Australians would prefer not to face. That the current Royal Commission has forced all Australians to face the presence of this scourge in our society, in our institutions, in our churches, cannot be denied. After almost four and a half years (at the time of writing) the work of the Royal Commission has meant, I fervently hope, that no child who has been the target of the such criminal behaviour will not be believed, and no institution – particularly a church – will behave in the way depicted in Keneally’s work and which has, to its everlasting shame, been the reality far too many people have been confronted with.
As a member of the Catholic Church – and as a priest – I have been ashamed and appalled by the history that is being made known through the efforts of the current Royal Commission. The story portrayed by Keneally has, unfortunately, all too many resonances with what has been brought to light by the Commission and other efforts to eradicate the scourge of child sexual abuse. One can only hope that those who read Keneally’s work can commit themselves to ensuring that the work of the Royal Commission bears fruit into the future.