Ad Limina Apostolorum (Blog) | St. Augustine's Library
Tuesday, July 26, 2005

On Michael O'Brien's Father Elijah:

I hesitate to review the first novel in a series without having read its successors, but, as each novel does intend to 'stand on its own' (lacking clear chronological sequence), I think a review is not out of place.

Right off, Michael O'Brien stands head and shoulders above any other writer in the 'acocalyptic fiction' genre, even if, as other reviewers have said, this isn't saying much. He has been rightly compared to Dostoevsky, and some passages of the book are clearly reminiscent of the great Russian master. A few dynamic subplots in the middle of the book (e.g., the rambling confessions of Count Smokrev), which seem on the surface to be entirely out of place, simply make the novel. The vibrant Catholic orthodoxy which pierces every page, along with the thick layers of 'POD' (pious and overly-devotional) - relics, shrines, saints, scapulars, exorcisms, and Marian devotion to your heart's content - make the novel a delightful diversion for the theologically like-minded, if nothing else. Deep mystical themes interweave throughout the book - it seems, at times, less of a novel and more of a prayer.

Now, the complaints. First, the dialogue in O'Brien's novels, however theologically and spiritually potent, bears little to no resemblance to any actual dialogue that might occur between two actual persons. It bears a closer resemblance to, say, a written correspondence, over the course of ten years, between St. John of the Cross and St. Teresa of Avila, somehow condensed and re-formatted into a hypothetical conversation. Memo to author: Many people wish they could write like that; fewer people actually write like that; no one talks like that.

Second, the characters are surprisingly two-dimensional. Father Elijah, despite all of O'Brien's attempts to plague him with human weaknesses, is unshakably saccharine. I mean, when Smokrev browbeats him with tales of human perversions, you just know Father Elijah is going to respond with some pious dictum about the redemptive forgiveness of Christ. Despite his all-too-human foibles, Father Elijah is about as predictable as can be, a consistent mouthpiece for traditional Catholic piety, all of which makes him inspiring, yes, but also a bit hard to relate to. And don't get me started on O'Brien's Antichrist character, who is so utterly stereotypical and cliche that Left Behind's 'Nicolae' is more believable.

But all told, these minor flaws do not diminish the strengths of O'Brien's novel: a compelling and driven plot laced throughout with an inspiring spiritual message. No one would put O'Brien in the 'first tier' of fiction writers (with Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, etc.); few would put him in the 'second tier' (with O'Connor and Greene). He is most likely somewhere near the top of the 'third tier', which is not at all a bad place to be.

# posted by Jamie : 12:42 PM


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Ad Limina Apostolorum: An ecclesiastical term meaning a pilgrimage to the sepulchres of St. Peter and St. Paul at Rome, i.e., to the Basilica of the Prince of the Apostles and to the Basilica of St. Paul "outside the walls".

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J. B. Schneewind's Invention of Autonomy: A History of Modern Moral Philosophy (reading)

Paul Hacker's Ego in Faith: Martin Luther and the Origins of Anthopocentric Religion (finished: 3 stars)

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