In the latest book from the author of the acclaimed Schindler's List, we meet protagonist Frank Darragh, a young priest in the suburbs of Sydney, Australia in 1941. Darragh has a penchant for raising the ire of his superiors at every turn while acting as his parish's most popular confessor. In the midst of reports that the war is going badly in the Pacific and daily rumors of a Japanese invasion, Father Darragh is confronted with issues of a much more immediate and spiritually challenging nature, embodied in two seemingly separate events whose confluence will shake the foundations of his faith and place him in extreme jeopardy, ecclesiastically and physically. First there is his infatuation with a beautiful young woman whose husband is a prisoner of war in North Africa. She confides a potential indiscretion, and under the auspices of saving her soul, but questioning his motives, Frank is drawn into a deeper relationship. At the same time, he is asked by an American MP, a sometime benefactor of the parish church, to intervene and help bring in a black catholic soldier gone AWOL and found habitating with a white Australian woman. Both these endeavors are far outside the purview of a simple parish priest, and the embarrassment they cause the church, as they become public, places Father Darragh deep in the monsignor's doghouse.
But things really plunge off the scale when the young woman is discovered strangled to death and letters from the priest are found among her possessions. They are but invitations to discuss the matters of her concern, but they are enough to place Frank under the shadow of suspicion and, without any evidence other than guilt by association, he is shipped off to a monastery in the bush for a meditative retreat. His retreat director is a wise and compassionate veteran of the first war, and offers Frank his first real taste of the true religious life, in opposition to the mindless repetition and politics of his daily priestly life. Carefully, articulately and lovingly crafted, the various threads of the story are pulled together in an inevitable but never obvious knot, as Frank returns to his parish and learns the American MP also had a connection to the young woman. Questions of faith, morality, temptation and duty are ultimately answered, but a heavy price for this elucidation is extracted from Frank Darragh. Drawing on his own experience in studying for the priesthood, Thomas Keneally paints a compelling and painfully realistic picture of a young man determined to do the right thing as he sees it spoken by the often conflicting worlds of church and secular society. Office of Innocence is a wonderful book that speaks to any time, to all who seek the truth. Sam Harrison is a novelist who is studying for ordination in the Methodist Church.