Writing novels, he’s Tom Keneally. Works of history – such as The Great Shame (1998) about the Irish diaspora to the USA and Australian in the nineteenth century, and this year’s American Scoundrel, concerned with the adventures of politician, general and amorist Dan Sickles – are by Thomas Keneally. There is more doubling in Keneally’s most recent novel, for he uses two titles. In this country, we have An Angel in Australia; in Britain, The Office of Innocence. Each suggests a different line of approach to a novel that seems in some ways old-fashioned, so instinct is it with his earlier work. By the way, Keneally’s novel count is now twenty-six, including two under the pseudonym ‘William Coyle’.
We meet young Father Frank Darragh as he walks out of St Patrick’s Seminary, Manly, in the early months of World War II. He’ll be back, unlike Keneally, who left the Church irrevocably in 1960, before taking his final vows. Frank is accosted by an ageing exorcist, shuffling in for a meal. This Monsignor disconcertingly instructs the ‘sheltered boy’, the ‘eternal priest’ (as Keneally will later call Darragh) that he ‘must be a merciful confessor’. It is an injunction that probes the heart of this young man for whom innocence, or openness to the pain of others, is indeed the badge of his office. What Father Darragh has to confront in wartime Sydney is all that is implicit in the local name for this book. An angel is made in Australia (as three have been in America) by a violent, obsessed, yet coldly controlled American soldier who finds a cruel, triumphant way to think of his murders.