Posted by: Lisa Hill | January 11, 2021

An Angel in Australia, by Tom Keneally

Shortlisted for the 2003 Miles Franklin Award, and nominated for the International Dublin Literary Award, An Angel in Australia is the 29th novel of the prolific Australian author Thomas (Tom) Keneally.   It’s a very interesting book, and one worth seeking out.

Although it’s not the focus of the novel, nor is it explicit, An Angel in Australia is also a novel which acknowledges clerical sexual abuse.  The focus is exposing the problem of the sanctity of the confessional, and the dilemma faced by a priest when he knows that lives are at stake, including his own.

The priest Fr. Frank Darragh who hears this abhorrent confession is young, naïve and idealistic, and all the confessions he’s heard so far have been about minor sins.  Unlike the more cynical of the other young priests with whom he plays tennis at White City, he does not find the banality of confession tedious. Darragh is wholly sincere, and parishioners queue on his side of the church because he is gentle with them.  He is shocked to the core when another young priest confesses what he has done, and his furious response startles this perpetrator who expected mercy and thinks that trying ‘to make amends’ will achieve absolution for his crime.  Darragh’s demand that the perpetrator admit his crime to the authority of his superior comes to nothing because the young priest runs away.

It is more than merely disconcerting to read the likely consequences had he stayed and admitted his crime.

There was a silence beyond the curtain.  Darragh could guess that the young brother was most fearful of being made to do that; to admit to such a crime in front of the head of his community.  He had hoped that what he had done to the boy was now walled up forever in Darragh’s brain, bound never to emerge.  But if a condition of being absolved was that the young man tell Brother Keogh, there would be no red-velvet secrecy.  He would be required to go on retreat, a time of withdrawal and reflection at a monastery.  He would be sent to another school with a cloud over his name.  The most senior men in the order might be warned of him, and the chief sin of his life. (p.51)

Reading this is an unambiguous reminder that this was the institutional response to clerical abuse, to move perpetrators on and to hope that it would not happen again.  Keneally does not flinch from making it clear to his readers.

It is war-time, Sydney in 1942, and a missing priest is of no consequence except to Darragh, and soon, he has another crisis to deal with.  There is widespread anxiety about a likely Japanese invasion, and the city is full of American soldiers flirting with the local women.  One of these men, an African-American called Gervaise, also comes to confession, because he hadn’t understood that the friendliness of Australians towards them did not extend to sexual relations between black men and white women.  It is through Fr. Darragh’s contact with this man that Fr. Darragh makes the acquaintance of a military policemen called Fratelli.

The shadow of the Depression lingers and Mrs Kate Heggarty is not averse to receiving gifts from a generous American who will enable her to get by in dignity while her husband is a German POW.  But — emblematic of the power and influence of the churches at this time — she is also a Catholic, and she consults Fr. Darragh outside the confessional because she wants him to know that her reasons for dalliance have more to do with the fear of poverty than sexual attraction.  This consultation at the presbytery means that Fr. Darragh is not hampered by the anonymity of the confessional, and he visits her to try to change her mind.  Prompted by gossip, he also visits Mrs Flood, a lapsed Catholic in a ménage a trois with her husband and a firebrand Communist, and feels himself a failure when he has no impact on their arrangements either.


All these threads come together when a woman is murdered; and within the confessional Fr. Darragh learns the identity of the murderer.  The newspapers make suspicion out of his refusal to breach the sanctity of confession, and his superiors are less than supportive, but the real tension in the narrative comes from his realisation that there are men and women at continuing risk and that his knowledge makes him vulnerable as well.  The arrival of Japanese submarines in Sydney Harbour provides an exciting climax.

Not long after the publication of An Angel in Australia, Peter Pierce acknowledged Keneally’s place in Australian literature with these words:

Keneally can sometimes seem the nearest that we have to a Balzac of our literature; he is in his own rich and idiosyncratic ways the author of an Australian ‘human comedy’. (Wikipedia, Thomas Keneally page, viewed 11/1/21)

Like Balzac, Keneally puts a human face on issues that are troubling.  One of Balzac’s most memorable stories is An Episode Under the Terror (the period under Robespierre following the execution of Louis XVI) in which he explores the guilt of the executioner.  As I say in my summary at Goodreads:

The stranger claims to be guiltless, yet his grief and repentance is profound. He asks the priest the question which has bedevilled moralists from Henry VIII to the Nuremburg Trials: should participation in evil acts be punished when one is only following orders? For him there are two competing dogmas: obedience as the first principle of military law versus respect for the king as a matter of religion.

An Angel in Australia shows us that for the priests caught up in the tangle of heinous crimes and their strongly held religious beliefs about the sanctity of the confessional, it is not a simple matter of right and wrong.  In a secular society like ours, where the need to protect victims is paramount, this is a very difficult issue indeed.

Keneally’s writing, however, is often beautiful, as Balzac’s rarely is.  This scene comes from Fr. Darragh’s forced retreat, when he is troubled, amongst other things, about the impact of the scurrilous anti-Catholic press on his mother, who gave up so much to help her only child fulfil his vocation:

He took the hiking trail again.  There was in the Australian bush today, after yesterday’s blankness of fog, an impassive air.  The eucalypts gave the sense of being not only pre-Christian and thus indifferent, but pre-human and thus doubly indifferent.  The trees, tall in knowledge, continued to keep to themselves all that Darragh had no doubt they possessed.  The idea of an answer encoded among these great, shaggy-barked, smooth-fleshed shafts was sustaining, and he would not like to have been stripped of that expectation.  He would not have minded being, for the next moment, hour, or forever, motherless Adam, and for this neutral vegetation to cover the entire planet not already covered by the chiding blue of the distant sea.  (p.246)

I read this book now to make some room on the TBR, but now I don’t want to part with it.

Author: Tom (Thomas) Keneally
Title: An Angel in Australia
Publisher: Doubleday, Transworld (Random House Australia), 2002
ISBN: 9781864710014, first edition hbk, 336 pages
Source: personal library, bought second-hand, $18.00

Available (new and second-hand) from Fishpond: An Angel In Australia


  1. It’s a really fascinating novel – and it’s so good to see it being discussed


    • Yes, I find novels that unpack this kind of dilemma really interesting. And I didn’t see the end coming, even though I know my history of this period!


  2. That paragraph you quote at the end is powerful.


    • It is indeed. The more so each time I read it…


  3. Flirting? They were asking and offering to pay for sex. Kylie Tennant, who was there, is clear that young (white) girls were happy to have paid sex with cashed up Black soldiers.
    It is a disgrace that purveyors of magic nostrums get to determine what the Law does and does not learn. I know you agree and Keneally agrees that the Catholic hierarchy’s only thought in the face of institution-wide child rape was to protect itself, but it still makes me angry.


    • But Bill, this isn’t Kylie Tennant’s novel, it’s Keneally’s, and it’s about unsophisticated Catholic parishioners in an ordinary suburb of Sydney not Kings Cross. The reason Kate Heggarty goes to talk to her priest about it, outside the confessional, is that she wants him to know — because she cares about his opinion — that she’s not like ‘those’ girls. She’s leading this soldier on because she’s been through the Depression and she fears the indignity of poverty and he’s generous with things she needs for herself and her boy, and because (she thinks) he’s a ‘gentleman.’
      What I take from this novel is that enabling courts to force reporting of crime (of any kind) that’s been admitted in confession is not as simple as passing laws to countermand the sanctity of the confessional (as I think they may have done here in Victoria). Keneally shows how sincerely these spiritual beliefs are held by both parties in the confessional, and while you and I may not give credence to these beliefs ourselves, and we may wish that it were otherwise, it’s naïve to imagine that centuries of religious tradition can just be overturned. (The Reds tried that in the USSR, and see how far that got them.)
      I think it’s important to know how other people think, especially when I don’t agree with them.


      • I really need to read more of Keneally’s books. This sounds interesting, particularly in the light of John Clanchy’s historical fiction novel I read last year about clerical abuse. The story is told from a different point of view but it’s good seeing this topic explored – and Keneally wrote his nearly 20 years ago.


        • Yes, and he also wrote Crimes of the Father, recently, when the Royal Commission was getting started.
          I think he’s got a unique perspective because he entered a seminary to train for the priesthood but left before taking holy orders, and is, I believe, now a lapsed Catholic but still understands the mindset.

          Liked by 1 person

          • Yes, I think you’re right about his background and ability therefore to understand “the mindset” as you say.

            Liked by 1 person

  4. It was a treat to read your thoughts about an intense and beautifully written novel. You’ve made me add to my TBR list.


    • Thanks, Charlotte — happy reading in 2021!


  5. A hidden gem clearly. I’ve read only a few books by Keneally, the last of which (Daughters of Mars) was so disappointing I haven’t been in a hurry to go back to him


    • I was disappointed in that one too… it’s bound to happen sometimes when a full-time writer is under pressure to bring out a new book so often to keep his readers happy. I’m reading the new biography of Graham Greene at the moment, and it’s so interesting to hear about the duds that were published early in his career when he was pushed for money!
      Not that I think that’s the case with Keneally, I think with him it’s more the weight of expectations.


      • Fair point. Daughters of Mars wasn’t so bad that I wanted to avoid him in the future.

        Liked by 1 person

  6. Not usually a Keneally fan but you’ve made this one sound so interesting that I’m sorely tempted. The ongoing elevation, by priests, of canon law over and above the actual law is a problem that has not gone away (and I doubt that it will).


    • I don’t think it will either. Religious belief can be extremely strong.

      Liked by 1 person

  7. Wow, Keneally has written more books than I thought. I’ve often been tempted to try one, but never have. You seem to be a fan, though – do you have any recommendations on where to start?


    • LOL I wouldn’t call myself a fan… it’s more like a case of Balzac, where reading the oeuvre brings a sense of knowing more about the society and culture of the country. Keneally has taught me about people and events that I didn’t know about.
      It’s hard to say where to start: his very early work is modernist, not to everyone’s taste, he has become more mainstream since then. I think I’d suggest Schindler’s Ark (made into the film Schindler’s List) which won the Booker, because it’s the one that is the most universal in its concerns. .

      Liked by 1 person

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