Book Review: Strangers and Sojouners
Strangers and Sojouners, by Michael D. O'Brien
Ignatius Press, San Francisco, 1997
Reviewed by John Mallon
In the high-powered business of book publishing, a first-time novelist who has a great success is all too often under pressure to follow it with the same book with the characters and scenery changed. Michael D. O'Brien's best selling first novel Father Elijah: An Apocalypse (Ignatius Press, San Francisco, 1996) was met with rave reviews comparing him with Dostoyevsky. How do you follow that? To their credit, O'Brien and Ignatius Press did not try to recreate the same fast-action paced thriller. Instead it was followed by an entirely different kind of novel which serves to showcase O'Brien's extraordinary talent and versatility.
One is tempted to refer to Father Elijah as "a man's book" full of action, political and ecclesiastical intrigue, whereas Strangers and Sojourners, O'Brien's second published novel could be called a "women's book." But both designations would be limiting. In Strangers and Sojourners, O'Brien takes us deep into the inner life of a refined and cultured English woman, Anne Kingsly Ashton. He does so through narrative, her own diary entries and daydreams. From her childhood at the turn of the century to her death in 1976 O'Brien takes us through the experiences, dreams and tragedies that touch and set the course of her sojourn through life.
As a young woman she is deeply affected by a dying young soldier while working as a nurse in a field hospital in Belgium during the First World War. The young man is a Canadian who speaks to her in ways that touch her soul and create a lasting image of beauty as he discusses his home in British Columbia, and his long trips alone in the wilderness throughout Canada. Despite warnings from a tough older nurse against forming any attachments to the patients, Anne becomes enchanted by him. One day she comes to find him gone—taken away—and it is unclear whether he is alive or dead. He was expected to die, but there is no certain knowledge of his death and no way to trace him.
This encounter haunts Anne's entire life. After the war she sets sail for Canada, with dim hopes of finding him, but seeking the beauty he imparted to her in their brief meeting.
The contrast between her deep and sensitive inner life and the starkness of the British Columbia wilderness are astutely woven by O'Brien's mesmerizing prose. There are babies being born in log cabins, umbilical cords being cut and ancient woman delivering the babies and nursing them as from time immemorial. We witness the primal power of a man in the wilderness, Stephen Delaney, who appeals to Anne almost as a "centaur" and after a slow paced courtship they marry. He is a Catholic who fled persecution in Ireland. Anne acutely senses the depth beneath the silences of this brooding Irishman, silences which both attract her and vex her.
The beauty of the book is in O'Brien's sense of mood, and the serenity, even in tragedy, heartache and the harsh outer world Anne inhabits. O'Brien's insight into the female psyche is almost uncanny. Spiritual themes naturally weave in and out of the story with extreme subtlety, between Anne's agnosticism and Stephen's mysterious silent but devout Catholicism. It hints at things to come in future novels as the family line continues. O'Brien's latest novel entitled Eclipse of the Sun, just released by Ignatius, continues the saga of the present generation of Delaneys. The advertising hints at apocalyptic themes.
Strangers and Sojourners is a book which leaves you speechless with its beauty, breadth and richness. Not since the death of Walker Percy has a novelist emerged of such power and depth with the steady beat of a deeply Catholic heart softly present beneath the rapid turning of every page. O'Brien is a timeless artist speaking to the generation that came of age under John Paul II and the New Evangelization, communicating truths that sometimes can only be illustrated by great fiction. His work will live on.
-- Mallon is Contributing Editor of Inside the Vatican magazine. His email is email@example.com
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Michael D. O'Brien, Strangers and Sojourners, Catholic literature John Mallon
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