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Dig deep and ‘The Father’s Tale’ will reward

bookMichael O’Brien’s The Father’s Tale (Ignatius Press, ISBN 978-0-89870-815-8) has more strikes against it than Babe Ruth on a bad afternoon.

Here is a doorstop of a novel, weighing in at nearly three pounds, more than one thousand pages long. There are redundancies galore; there are clunky passages; there are coincidences, particularly one involving a Russian military operation, that stretch belief to a breaking point. The characters engage in philosophical and theological debates that will annoy the car chase and bang-bang readers. Often the dialogue is didactic and polemical.  The main character, Alex Graham, hails from Canada — O’Brien himself is a Maple Leaf man — a country which, should they think of it at all, many Americans would describe as safe, comfortable and boring. Finally, Alex Graham is a believing Catholic, and much of the novel explores that faith, an exploration that will offend — and in some cases, enlighten — those who take their ideas of Catholicism from priestly scandals, the Spanish Inquisition and The DaVinci Code.

Yet here too some readers will find a different sort of strike, for buried within this novel are rich veins of gold.

First, there is the story itself. The Father’s Tale is a novel of redemption, in which Alex Graham, a widower and bookseller, sets out to find one of his sons, Andrew, who has gotten involved with a New Age sect with political dimensions and who has since disappeared. Alex’s travels in pursuit of his missing son take him first to Oxford, where Andrew has enrolled as a student, and then to the Continent, where it becomes apparent that Andrew’s mentors are deliberately keeping him from making contact with Andrew. 

Alex then follows Andrew and his handlers into Russia and farther into Siberia, where he finally loses the trail. Here, after being robbed and beaten nearly to death, he comes under the care of Irina Filipina, a physician living in Ozero Baikal, a tiny village on Lake Baikal. As he recovers from his wounds, Alex falls in love with Irina and her two sons — her husband has died as a result of radiation while assisting the injured at Chernobyl — and begins, too, his journey in what he describes as the “radical insecurity” of the world. Eventually, he is mistake for a spy, arrested, tortured, and by a sort of miraculous rescue, becomes a prisoner of the Chinese. To say more would be to give up too much of the plot.

Readers dissatisfied with today’s religious fiction — nearly all of it, frankly, is dross — and with novels in which the characters are two dimensional will also find gold here. Here O’Brien allows his characters to carry on discussions about God, morality, political and social systems, and life in the way many people do but which seldom seem to find their way into fiction. We watch, for example, how Alex struggles to maintain his religious beliefs in the face of tremendous odds and temptations. O’Brien makes Alex ultimately a good man, yes, but he also allows Alex again and again to be fully human: prone to mistakes, attracted by women, frightened, imperfect. Irina is a non-believer, yet she undergoes no miraculous change as she would in the hands of certain religious novelists. She gives us insight by her words and deeds into the many people of this world who have a strong sense of right and duty, who can love fiercely, who fight their dragons without the help of a supreme being. 

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In his account of life in Russia, both now and under Stalin, O’Brien has also created a story that should change how many of us with only a cursory knowledge of this vast country’s history view its people today. Through his descriptions of the labor camps that once existed in Siberia, his accounts of the underground movement that fought so hard to keep alive truth in the face of Soviet lies, and his creation of characters who seem to bear the imprint of their great hardship, O’Brien leads readers to take a more imaginative view of the Russian people than may be gleaned from a political report on television or the Internet. We learn of the horrors that befell the Russian people — the atrocities committed in the name of social good, the attempts to reprogram human behavior, the lies refitted as truth, the attacks on human impulses toward good and beauty — and we can mourn, as Alex does, for the lost and dead Russian souls of the last ninety years. 

Finally, The Father’s Tale is a meditation on the meaning of fatherhood, on the obligations of fathers, on their triumphs and failures, on their success and their failure in regard to their children. Alex pursues his son, but in the chase, he discovers the mystery of his own father, he finds out more than he ever thought possible about his love for his own sons; he confronts by force of circumstance his own paternal flaws. Near the end of the novel, Alex tells one of his sons: 

 “We all make mistakes, and we leave marks and gaps in our children’s lives. But we do love them — imperfect love, as all human love is. Then, when children become adults and have their own families, they begin to understand. They in their turn learn the need for forgiveness. In prison I learned to forgive my own father, and I saw that he needed to forgive his father….”

Its length alone will deter many potential readers from The Father’s Tale. Some who begin the book will toss it aside, disgruntled by its literary flaws or its discourses on faith and ideas. A few will finish The Father‘s Tale. These are the fortunate ones. By dint of their labor, they will carry away the gold that lies at the heart of this passionate tale. 

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