Father Jim McDermott, SJ

A variety of offerings for the readers on your Christmas list

Wednesday, December 4, 2019

Ghost Wall

Sarah Moss

Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $22, 146 pp.

Any time a new season of “The Crown” drops on Netflix, I find myself immediately thirsty for stories set in the United Kingdom. If it’s the same for you, I highly recommend Sarah Moss’ coming-of- age Brexit novel “Ghost Wall.”

Silvie, 17, has spent her life in Northern England listening to her bus driver father extol the bravery of the ancient Britons who faced down Roman invaders despite their superior numbers and technology. He spends his nights learning everything he can about the way they lived, and his weekends forcing Silvie to do the same.

But when she and her mother are forced along on a “Live Like Our Iron Age Ancestors”-type camping immersion that her father is facilitating for a university professor and his students, Silvie slowly begins to see her father through the eyes of other young people, and realizes that much of what she and her mother accept as normal is anything but. 

Told in the first person from Silvie’s point of view, “Ghost Wall” is a taut but also poignant portrait of a young woman struggling to accept that she is allowed to be her own person, in the face of a father and country who insist otherwise. It is a parable about nationhood, identity and gender reminiscent of Flannery O’Connor.

The All of It

Jeannette Haien

Harper Perennial, $13.99, 145 pp.

I hope you can forgive me if my list this year includes a short novel about a priest. It’s just so rare to come across a story that captures well the challenges of being a priest, let alone one that presents them with the emotional nuance of Jeannette Haien’s “The All of It.”

Father Declan de Loughry, 63, has spent his life serving in rural parishes in County Mayo, Ireland. He’s a cut-and-dried kind of a person, one who perceives no gray area between what is good and what is evil. But when a long-time parishioner confesses on his death bed a secret in his relationship with his wife, Father Declan finds his clear categories more and more shaken. 

It’s hard to provide much beyond this about the story without giving away too much. Personally, I loved the ways Declan’s interactions with this husband and wife challenge him to reconsider both what he asks of people and himself. Sometimes being a priest feels like life on a high wire; you become afraid that just a puff of wind could blow you over. The temptation to become hard and unfeeling can be great.

“The All of It” is a story about a priest like that, someone who decided at some point he needed to protect himself and eventually lost his way. Through the story of his parishioners, he rediscovers the rich complexity of our human existence and the painful but beautiful fragility of his own. 

A Holy Mosaic: Love, Diversity, and the Family

Michael O’Neill McGrath

World Library Publications, $20, 54 pp.

Whether you know it or not, you’ve probably seen the paintings of Oblate of St. Francis de Sales Brother Michael O’Neill McGrath. Filled with vibrant colors and wonderfully hand-lettered phrases, his work has been featured everywhere from the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops to USA Today. 

Since the election of Pope Francis, McGrath has done many paintings and a number of books incorporating quotes from the pope. His new book, “A Holy Mosaic,” draws from Francis’ apostolic exhortation “Amoris Laetitia” to offer rich images of life and family.

Two of my favorites sit side by side near the middle; on the left, a young couple dances the tango, a dove nearby holding a rose in its teeth, while behind them floats in pink and yellow this Francis quote: “Young love needs to keep dancing toward the future with immense hope.”

Across the page a much older couple dance on ice skates, the woman soaring in the air in her balding husband’s arms; “Those who marry do not expect their excitement to fade,” reads the quote, McGrath’s painting beautifully capturing the warmth and imagination of Francis’ words.

Some pieces feature just hand-painted words against interesting backgrounds. “If the young are called to open new doors, the elderly hold the keys,” reads one piece, with stars and the sun filling in some letters to create a sense of wonder and possibility. No matter the context, McGrath’s letters always seem to radiate hope and joy.

At the start of one chapter, McGrath writes that “St. Francis de Sales used to say that when love enters our hearts, it doesn’t come alone.” “A Holy Mosaic” is a great offering of what else love may bring. A perfect book for prayer and inspiration.


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