I had a bad experience with Thomas Keneally in high school – The Chant of Jimmy Blacksmith is the only English novel I never finished in high school (!nerd!), because I just couldn’t deal with it. But, when Vintage began its new Australian classics range, this book was the only one I hadn’t read. And it has such a nice cover…
James Maitland is a new priest at the House of Studies in Sydney. One night, on his way back to the House, he meets his cousin and young bride, who have nowhere to stay. He gives them his room for the night, little realising what a fuss this will cause. And so begins a chain of events that will see Maitland’s past uncovered, and his very existence questioned as both a man and priest, and will see the fight between tradition and modernity come to a head.
To be honest, I was expecting another kind of novel where the priest was accused of sexual harassment or the such, and the whole idea of faith coming into question. Keneally, however, does not take this approach at all. Maitland is a young priest with very humanist (read: liberal, for the Catholic Church) ideas about religion and the world, and in a place where any kind of deviance from the exact letter of the law of God is frowned upon, his journey is really very interesting. Especially to one who sympathises greatly with his plight. Watching the behaviour of the other, older priests is, for me anyway, really frustrating. Here are some clearly not unintelligent men refusing to see that any kind of forward movement might actually be good for their cause. Instead, they are stuck with ideas that were outdated several hundred years ago (especially in relation to women), and feel the need to subject everyone to them.
Keneally particularly attacks the gender discrepancies so clear in the Catholic Church. Costello and Nolan (the two senior priests in the House) behave terribly towards women, especially when interviewing a young nun who has had the audacity to teach young children the possibility of other ways of life outside Catholicism. Similarly, he attacks the divorce courts of the Catholic Church, which place women under undue stress, to somehow ensure that a marriage has not been consummated to ensure a ‘legal’ divorce may take place. Not knowing that much about Catholicism before this book, this kind of behaviour shocked me a little, and makes me hope that this has been done away with in the last 40 years.
What was also really excellent was the insight into the life of a priest, and the toll this can have on your sanity. Maurice Egan, a religious lawyer for the Church, seems to be the least possible friend Maitland should make in this place, yet somehow they become quite close, and I love the irony that Egan is the priest with the biggest secret of them all – he leaves Maitland’s past deviations for dead.
Look, I was not expecting a lot from this book, even though it won the Miles Franklin Award in 1968. I have, however, been pleasantly surprised at what turns out to be a fairly angry attack on organised religion, and the Catholic Church in particular, which I always love. Three cheers for Thomas Keneally.