SOPHIA HOUSE by Michael D. O'Brien Ignatius, 2005 488 pages, $24.95
To order: (800) 651-1531 or ignatius.com
In his sixth novel, Michael D. O'Brien captures a deeply Catholic vision of the workings of the human heart — and spins an irresistible yarn in the process.
Pawel Tarnowski is a bookseller who lives and works at his shop in Warsaw, Poland, in the early 1940s. Outside his doors, the city is occupied by the Nazis. Although he is young, Pawel moves like an infirm old man. He has been injured by life, physically, emotionally and spiritually. Yet still he harbors a glimmer hope in his heart, longing to truly know — and be known by — God.
One day a young Jewish boy named David Schäfer tears into the shop, running from the police. Although Catholic Tarnowski wishes to stay out of trouble, he sympathizes with the boy's predicament and agrees to hide him.
Although only 17 years old, Schäfer, strikes Tarnowski as wise beyond his years. Tarnowski laments: “t is a grief to me that this best of souls — the fruit of all that is good in Judaism — is dependent on one such as me, a most disordered representative of Christianity. What, really, is God doing here?”
With Warsaw being all but deserted, the two find themselves in a sheltered pocket of a dark world. They have much time to discuss God, love and suffering. Through these talks, as their friendship deepens, Tarnowski finds that it is only through suffering that one can truly love. And true love suffers for the loved. He quotes the Song of Solomon: “I sleep, but my heart is awake.”
(The cover art, an original painting by O'Brien titled “The Rescuer,” expresses this insight visually: It depicts a man holding back the flames of death in order that many souls may be freed from them.)
As the characters develop and the plot spreads out in unexpected directions, O'Brien explores a couple of themes that will resonate with Catholic readers. One is the loss of spiritual fatherhood as one of the most pernicious problems facing the West today. The other is the hope we have in our Father in heaven and how he alone can restore the rightful role of human fatherhood in society.
As with all O'Brien's novels, the balance of the world hangs on seemingly small decisions made by common folk: people like you and me. The motifs are sweeping and ambitious, but the details and the dialogue ring true as everyday life.
Some readers may find the storytelling a bit slow in places, but then O'Brien is after more than just page-turning entertainment. He's got his mind set on exploring the destiny of man as it's been understood and taught through 2,000 years of Catholic faith and living. Naturally, setting up a fictional universe with that kind of breadth takes a little doing. Those who spend the time to carefully read and digest these pages will come away refreshed and fed.
Sophia House can be read and enjoyed as a stand-alone story, but those who read O'Brien's first novel, Father Elijah, will recognize David Schäfer. I won't give away more than that here; suffice it to say that, while Sophia House focuses on the interior conversion of Pawel Tarnowski, hints of Schäfer's destiny abound.
If you're looking for a summer read that provides more than a quickly forgotten diversion, here it is.
Joy Wambeke writes from St. Paul, Minnesota.