my annoyance at its length. But there are good reasons why card-carrying super-Catholics like Peter Kreeft and Tom Howard blurbed this leviathan. It’s a whale of a ride, as Ahab might have said.
I have particularly enjoyed two other O’Brien novels, Island of the World and Theophilos—though I did fail to finish the messy, visionary Father Elijah. Being a Catholic reader and writer, I want to follow what O’Brien’s doing. He is the Catholic novelist du jour, since the other O’B (Patrick) sailed west.
Thumbnail plot: Alexander Graham is a widower with two grown sons. He
lives in a small town north of Toronto, running an antiquarian bookshop
named Kingfisher, a symbolic bird that O’Brien never tires of linking
to just about anything. One of Graham’s two sons, a student at Oxford,
disappears. Graham discovers that his son has fallen in with a religious
cult. Dad goes in search of son, and like Phileas Fogg, he
ends traveling around the world. It takes him way more than 80 days.
Through the first 800 or 900 pages of The Father’s Tale, I could not help thinking of snarky things to write about it. It is too long by half. When, on page 371, Graham can not “dismiss the growing suspicion that he was locked into a Sisyphean ritual that would have him trailing his son all over the world, always a step behind,” the reader may sympathize.
The book begins as a modern retelling of the parable of the prodigal son. (In his travels, Graham happens upon Rembrandt’s work on this theme, at left.) The Father’s Tale turns into a Michelin guidebook for anyone traveling from Helsinki to Moscow, then eastward on the Trans-Siberian Railroad; comes to fancy itself as The Bridges of Irkutsk County (when our hero falls in love by the shores of icy Lake Baikal); and concludes like John Le Carré lite, complete with Soviet and Chinese torture and counter-intelligence. It is almost as if O’Brien’s editor, upon reading the desultory first half of the manuscript, ordered the author to spice it up. Instead of editing what he had written, O’Brien then turned the book into first a romance, then a spy thriller. If it weren’t so damn moving, or erudite, The Father’s Tale might be laughable.
O’Brien, however, is not only an iconographer (useful when he comes to describe sacred art of the Russian Orthodox Church) but also apparently a scholar of Russian literature, history, and culture. Graham’s favorite room in the Kingfisher bookshop houses his collection of Russian lit, and his fluency stands him in very good stead when he meets a prostitute in Moscow, a remarkable pair of monks beside the Little-Little Ob River, and a beautiful widowed doctor and her two sons-in-need-of-a-father deep in Siberia. O’Brien’s comfort among the stuff of Russian language and culture is reminiscent of, if not quite so impressive as, Patrick O’Brian’s knowledge of 19th century naval warfare and European history in the time of the Napoleonic wars. O’Brien with an “e” takes his reader deep inside Russia today—with a book as long as the Russian landmass.
Any book worth its price has to do at least one of three things: entertain, instruct, inspire. The Father’s Tale does all three—although the entertainment, piled mostly into the second half of the book, may seem gratuitous. It is the inspiration for which I will remember this book.
The Father’s Tale inspires me to be a better father, and to think about the very nature of fatherhood. “I gave them so little—so little,” Alex says of his sons to his priest friend Toby, and every father worth his salt can sympathize. Yet Graham shows the depth of his love for his sons—and broadens his personal definition of sons and daughters—by undertaking his mission impossible.
With long sections on modern-day martyrs of Russia and underground Catholics of China, the book inspires me to consider the fate of the Catholic Church worldwide, the possible importance of Russia in the world’s history and its future, and the value of a broken heart.
It inspires me to grow closer to Christ in the Eucharist, in His Church, and in the people and events of my daily life. I have been reading, a bit every day, Jean-Pierre de Caussade’s classic Abandonment to Divine Providence, and there are many passages in O’Brien that seem inspired by this work, which looks for the hand of God in the minutest daily happenings. As Graham tells Toby, “God has his hand on it all.” Or as Father Sergius tells Graham, “The only failure is to reject what God wishes to show us.”
At page 1,014 there comes at last what might stand as the moral or buried epigraph for The Father’s Tale. It is a line from scripture in the telling of the battle of David and Goliath. I will leave it to you to read your way to this moral. It is worth working for.
A final note on the prologue: Read once at the beginning of the book, it will take on a whole new level of meaning if read again at the conclusion of the book. This shift in meaning may help the reader measure how far he or she has traveled on this strange journey with Michael O’Brien.