John Clanchy’s brilliant new novel ‘In Whom We Trust’

December 12, 2019 at 7:22 am | Posted in Australian novels, Finlay Lloyd, Historical novels, John Clanchy | 1 Comment
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The best historical novels vividly evoke the past while illuminating the present. Award-winning writer John Clanchy’s new novel In Whom We Trust exemplifies this. Set in a country town in Victoria just before and during World War I, the plot is narrated through the viewpoints of Father James Pearse and two orphans who came to Australia from England, Thomas Stuart, formerly a London chimneysweep, and Molly Preston, at thirteen or fourteen, a few years older than Thomas.

Father Pearse’s housekeeper Mrs Reilly (who even irons his newspaper for him) tells him one evening that a mysterious visitor came while he was out walking. He is intrigued, and so are we, as Mrs Reilly in her infuriatingly vague way continues ‘ladling out this miserable stew of half-facts’ about the visitor.

Later that night Pearce discovers that it is Thomas Stuart, who lived at St Barnabas’ orphanage where Father Pierce was chaplain for a couple of years. Father Pearce recalls Brother Stanislaus ‘and his austere band of Brothers’ there. Thomas, who is now (just) old enough to enlist for the First World War, has something to tell Pearse.

The masterfully created suspense escalates during what happens next and this novel works beautifully on that level – a page-turner with questions like: is Thomas after revenge? Is it blackmail? Will he be violent? – plus it works on a much deeper level – this timeless novel about the damages inflicted on innocent people by the Catholic Church will endure.

Why has Thomas returned? Father Pearce knows it must be something to do with Molly. ‘His heart dragged, realising that whatever you did, however far you went in time or space to escape it, the past was never truly past.’

We learn that Brother Stanislaus administered daily floggings, as well as worse abuse. While at St Barnabas Father Pearse had listened to Molly’s confessions in the Catholic ritual of Confession but had consigned her details to the realm of fantasy and imagination, his own lack of imagination and intellectual curiosity evident here as well as in every other area of his long history. Nothing has tested or stretched his lazy mind until now.

The writing is beautiful and strong in its visceral impact and although the subject is a tough one, the novel is not without moments of humour.

Our hearts go out to these two orphaned kids who would do anything for each other. We seem to see into the soul of Molly, following the logical, pragmatic reasoning of her untrained young mind with concern and applauding her resourcefulness in wielding her stolen pen and ink that is ‘not just her heart’s treasure but the key to her sanity’.

Buoyed by the spirited Molly and Thomas, while we feel for their loneliness and loyalty, we cheer their pluck and courage. We long for them to escape from their punishing servitude and the patent injustice of their lives, but as they know, ‘the authorities would come after them ‘with dogs and trackers’.

However, we’re intrigued by the chance that Father Pearce has to redeem himself, he who has ‘failed so often, failed so many people’.

John Clanchy is threatening to resign from writing fiction. My heart sank when I heard this but if it’s true, this novel could not be a more magnificent swan song. Rooted in quotidian details of ordinary life In Whom We Trust is also psychologically trenchant and breathes with authenticity.

It adheres to the conventions of the nineteenth century novel and at the same time it pulses with our contemporary anxieties about the abuse of children by trusted institutions. Clanchy couldn’t have written a novel exploring more up-to-the-minute issues if he had written it in the last twelve months. In fact, he wrote more or less a full draft of it twelve years ago.

For all its grim subject matter I’ve rarely read a novel that more richly rewards a re-read. I perceived new meaning in subtleties skipped over before, I recognised more echoes of the New Testament, I appreciated more keenly some grotesque ironies, and felt many of those satisfying ‘Ah – ha – of course!’ moments. There is depth in every sentence. And you won’t forget that ending for a very long time. Strangely enough it doesn’t lose its impact the second time around.

You can buy John Clanchy’s In Whom We Trust (Finlay Lloyd, 2019) at bookshops or online at Amazon or whatever online site you prefer plus at the Braidwood-based publisher’s site: where you will also find many more interesting, high quality books, including the same author’s wonderful short story collection, Six.









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  1. Thanks Penny. I’ll put it on my list

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