Recommended novels set in Rome, Norway, and England

During February’s WOSU All Sides Weekend Books, a live radio hour in which I talk about good books with fellow panelists, I shared stories about love, paleontologists, a World War II Irish priest, and feuding septuagenarian schoolmates. Only one of those books has made an appearance on The Longest Chapter — the paleontologists in A Hundred Million Years and a Day. For those who didn’t have the chance to tune in to the show, here are the others.

The premise for Joseph O’Connor’s new novel intrigued me from the get-go. It’s based on the true story of Monsignor Hugh O’Flaherty, an Irish Vatican priest who helped Allied POWs safely hide from the Germans and flee Nazi-occupied Italy. And yet, I hesitated, not sure it would live up to my expectations. Then that persistent nagging, an experienced instinct that guides me well, refused to let me ignore the book. I won’t bury the lede: My Father’s House likely will be a candidate for one of my top ten favorites of the year. That’s because of the gradual plot development, how O’Connor takes his time building up to a critical mission taking place Christmas Eve 1943, the beating heart of the plot. Chapters alternate between the 1943 mission and BBC interviews with members of the priest’s team in the 1960s remembering that night. The team also details how they came together (and became known as The Choir) and how their operations evolved and functioned. My Father’s House is a memorably moving novel. You have to wait for that emotional impact, though, which comes from the long deep dive into the time, and the people, and the risk. This is the first book of what’s to become The Rome Escape Line Trilogy.

This was my first recommendation on the show, a slim novel by Hanne Ørstavik translated from the Norwegian by Martin Aitken. It’s the story of a young mother, Vibeke, and her eight-year-old son, Jon, on the eve of Jon’s ninth birthday. They are new to a northern town in Norway, Vibeke with a new job at the cultural arts center. This day, she arrives home dreaming about a man who didn’t take his eyes off her during a presentation. What’s unsettling is that she doesn’t behave as we’d expect by calling out to Jon and asking about his day, excited about his birthday. Jon, caught up in his own thoughts, stays in his room, watches Vibeke, sits with her at the dinner table, and then leaves the house. He thinks she’s going to bake him a birthday cake that won’t be a surprise unless he’s away. Vibeke leaves to get a book at the library. Neither knows the other has gone out into the night. As it ticks past midnight, I became increasingly edge-of-my-seat nervous for what could happen, the author riding that fine line between civilized behavior and lurking danger. Beautiful prose, written without emotion (which makes it more intense in the reading), seamlessly alternates between the mother and son’s experiences in what becomes a totally believable, utterly possible, and unforgettable ending I did not see coming. It’s a magnificent capsule of powerful storytelling.

At the end of the show, given a few seconds for one more recommendation, I mentioned The Old Boys by Irish author William Trevor. It’s the story of former boarding school mates now in their 70s who need to elect a new president for their Old Boys Association. I don’t think it’s for everyone, given the dark humor and recounted schoolboy days of bullying; however, I found it delightfully spry. For example, two of the old boys, Mr. Cridley and Mr. Sole, entertain themselves by responding to advertisements offering free, at-home product demonstrations — from residential heating and cooling units (they live in a hotel managed by the fussy Miss Burdock) to women’s girdles. They and General Sanctuary (the most level-headed among the mates) are likeable characters, but not so much Mr. Jaraby and his wife who bicker vengefully, and Mr. Nox determined to prevent Jaraby’s presidential bid. The Guardian, in Trevor’s obituary, reported this about The Old Boys:

This story of an obsessional school feud carried on into senility combined the grotesquery of Dickens with a scalpel-sharp awareness of the persistence of snobbery, cruelty and infantilism in English life. It was also very funny.

William Trevor’s literary career offers a fictional treasure trove to select from, including short stories, if you’re inclined to dip your toe in. I’ve put three of his novels in a stack of classics I plan to read this year, inspired by an initiative of a blogger I follow, A Year of Reading William Trevor. The Old Boys is one of Trevor’s earliest works, published in 1964.

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