“On the first Sunday of Advent in the previous year, a man named Alexander Graham said a prayer that was to have unforeseen consequences.”
So begins chapter 1 of Michael O’Brien’s novel The Father’s Tale. The prayer was “Do whatever you want with me” and it was answered in the form of a journey more awful and more amazing than Alex could possibly have expected, and, in fact, had he known all that the answer to his prayer would entail, I would hazard a guess that he would not have prayed it.
While trying to avoid giving too many secrets of the plot away, let me tell you a little about this incredible novel.
It is, I confess, a rather large book. Okay, it’s really large. When I bought it, I didn’t realise just how big it was, and so I got rather a surprise when it arrived. At over one thousand pages long, it no doubt gives me a few new muscles every time I pick it up. But if you love to read, then don’t let the size put you off—a long book, if it’s a good book, just means that you get to enjoy the goodness for longer. So, really, the huge size of the book is a huge plus. What a delight to know that night after night of wonderful bedtime reading awaits you!
O’Brien describes his book as “a modern retelling of the parables of The Good Shepherd and The Prodigal Son”. It’s about a father who goes in search of his missing son and who sacrifices greatly during his journey.
It’s a book about fatherhood—a motif which is woven into the book not only in the main storyline of Alexander Graham and his son but through various subplots.
It’s a book about love. It’s a picture of what happens when the casket Lewis describes is forced open:
“To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything and your heart will be wrung and possibly broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact you must give it to no one, not even an animal. Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements. Lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness. But in that casket, safe, dark, motionless, airless, it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable.”
And it’s a book about one man’s spiritual journey as he slowly, painfully, draws nearer to God.
O’Brien writes beautifully. He conveys deep emotion without sentimentality or triteness. I was quickly drawn in to like and care about this most unlikely of heroes—a reclusive, widowed bookseller in his forties. And I cried more than I’ve ever cried over a novel.
Rather like The Lord of the Rings and Lewis’ space trilogy, this book portrays evil vividly as well as portraying good. If, like me, you are a squeamish reader, be warned that a couple of brief, brutal scenes take place, as well as a torture scene (I skipped over most of the latter).
O’Brien is a Roman Catholic, and therefore what he portrays as Christianity in The Father’s Tale is predominantly Roman Catholic. Obviously, there are issues that I would sharply differ on. But there is much to enjoy and much to be moved by as well as food for thought in The Father’s Tale. And, after all, all that is good and true and beautiful has its ultimate source in our Lord, whether it’s written by a Roman Catholic or an atheist or a reformed evangelical or anyone else.
And there is so much that is good and true and beautiful in The Father’s Tale. What a picture of a hard journey changing the one who reluctantly takes it. It makes me think of Frodo’s painful journey and transformation in The Lord of the Rings.
The Father’s Tale is not a lightweight book, literally or metaphorically.
But it’s a wonderfully good one.