My Lovely Frankie: An Evocative, Timely and Insightful Glimpse into Catholicism of the Past…

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my lovely frankie

My Lovely Frankie by Judith Clarke.  Published by Allen & Unwin, 28th June, 2017.  RRP: $19.99

I sit on the shelf of practicing Catholics.  The he-fleshling has a cousin in the clergy and an uncle who is one of Australia’s most prominent theologians.  The she-fleshling’s father spent time in the seminary training to become a Christian brother.  They are Catholics that, being of the post Vatican II era, fully grasp and vehemently despise – as many non-Catholics do – the hypocrisy and power hungriness that characterises the culture of the Church in general and the clergy in particular.  When the she-fleshling’s father left the seminary to pursue marriage, his parents were sent a note of condolence on his (from the clergy’s point of view) ridiculous and life-wrecking decision.  So I fully appreciated the gentle and accurate rendering of life in a 1950s seminary that Judith Clarke has created in historical YA novel, My Lovely Frankie.  

If you are not Catholic, have no knowledge of how the Catholic clergy works and has worked in the past, or have no insight into how the Church has changed (and more importantly, how it hasn’t) over the past 70+ years however, you may be mildly to majorly baffled by the decisions made by some of the characters in this book.  With that advisory message under our belts, let us continue.

We received our copy of this title from Allen & Unwin for review and here’s the blurb from Goodreads:

A masterful, moving story about a teenage boy caught between faith and love, by one of Australia’s finest YA writers.’Frankie believed in Heaven quite literally, as if it was another lovely world out past the stars. And when he spoke the word “love”, it seemed to spring free and fly into the air like a beautiful balloon you wanted to run after. But I couldn’t tell my parents about Frankie, not properly. I told them I’d made friends with the boy in the room next to mine, and how he’d come from this little town out west. I couldn’t tell them how he was becoming the best thing in my world. I couldn’t tell anyone, I hardly admitted it to myself.’

In the 1950s, ‘entering’ the seminary was for ever, and young boys were gathered into the priesthood before they were old enough to know what they would lose. Tom went to St Finbar’s because he was looking for something more than the ordinary happiness of his home and school.But then he discovered that being able to love another person was the most important thing of all.

For Tom, loving Frankie made him part of the world. Even when Frankie was gone…

Although this is classified as a YA novel, I think it’s safe to say that the setting and historical background underpinning Tom’s reflections will be lost on many current twelve to seventeen year old readers.  I think it was a lucky thing that I have a background knowledge of Catholicism and the structure of the Church both on a personal level and through tertiary studies, because it allowed many parts of the book to resonate with me in a way that might not be possible for young readers of today, be they Catholic or otherwise.  Couple that with the fact that the narrative style of the book is reflective, gentle and lacking in action for the majority of the novel and this may not be seen as a winner for its target age group.

Nevertheless, if you have any interest in historical novels and themes of coming of age against difficult social circumstances, I would encourage you to give My Lovely Frankie a go.

Tom decides, of his own accord, to enter the seminary and train to be a priest.  While this may not have been a strange decision in the 1950s – indeed, for Catholic families with multiple sons, it was almost a given that at least one boy would go into the Church – for Tom, this decision could be classed as a bit unusual because he is an only child and his parents don’t seem to be particularly pious or involved in the Church.  Nevertheless, Tom stands by his decision and while in the sparse, regimented and emotionally distant environment of the seminary, he meets Frankie.  Frankie is a breath of fresh air in the stale corridors, and felt to me almost like a St Francis of Assisi character; the one who is out frolicking amongst the baby animals while the others are restrained by tradition and discipline from admitting to and engaging with the beauty of life.   Tom becomes fascinated with Frankie and when Frankie mysteriously disappears from the seminary later, it affects Tom such that his whole life is coloured by the loss.

The story opens on Tom’s dotage and the reader is privy to the importance that Tom has placed on his relationship with Frankie, fleeting though that relationship was.  From there, the book flicks back to Tom’s youth, and the decisions that led him to enter the seminary – and perhaps more importantly, the decisions that caused him to remain there.  Alongside the tale of friendship and unrequited romance between Tom and Frankie, the book highlights themes of emotional connection and the development of empathy (or lack of it) in an environment as restricted as the seminary.

Clarke has cleverly thrown up many of the issues that are major factors in the train wreck that is the current state of Catholic clergy, including the enforced separation of young boys from their families while training to be priests, an overblown sense of superiority bestowed upon those who would be priests and a complete lack of acknowledgement or understanding about key aspects of being human, such as sexuality and emotional connection.  Through Tom’s eyes, Clarke brings to light the great injustices and suffering that have been the result of such a regime, both for those within the clergy and those who have been impacted forever by the actions of clergy members.

Allow me to share with you one of the most telling lines of the book for me, in which Tom reflects on the constant nighttime crying of the youngest kids at the seminary:

“…it was part of our training, our formation: for us there was no use crying because no one would ever come to comfort us.  Like soldiers, we were being taught to have no pity for ourselves, and even then the edge of it struck me: that if you had no pity on yourself, how could you have it for other people, ever?”

My Lovely Frankie, page 119

Once again, although I found the book absorbing and thought-provoking and bang-on accurate in its setting and atmosphere, I am still struggling to see how this will appeal to a contemporary audience of teenagers.  Perhaps if any of you give it a go, you’ll let me know your thoughts?

Until next time,

Bruce

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Post-Natal Exhaustion and Creepy House-guests: The Hours Before Dawn…

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the hours before dawn

The Hours Before Dawn by Celia Fremlin is a psychological thriller based upon those oft hideous first months of sleeplessness, exhaustion and physical and mental barrenness that can follow the birth of a child.   The book was first published in 1959 and won the Edgar Award in 1960 for best mystery novel.  We received a copy via Netgalley for review as Faber & Faber have reissued the book.  We are so glad we came across this novel because even as the attitudes and situations depicted in the book are clearly of their time, I have yet to come across a book that so flawlessly transcends social change to appear as relevant and likely today as ever.  Here’s the blurb from Goodreads:

Louise would give anything – anything – for a good night’s sleep. Forget the girls running errant in the garden and bothering the neighbours. Forget her husband who seems oblivious to it all. If the baby would just stop crying, everything would be fine.

Or would it? What if Louise’s growing fears about the family’s new lodger, who seems to share all of her husband’s interests, are real? What could she do, and would anyone even believe her? Maybe, if she could get just get some rest, she’d be able to think straight.

In a new edition of this lost classic, The Hours Before Dawn proves – scarily – as relevant to readers today as it was when Celia Fremlin first wrote it in the 1950s.

Although the book is a mystery with a psychological focus, Fremlin deals with the events with a remarkable sense of dry wit.  I initially thought that the book might be a bit dreary in tone, dealing as it does with an exhausted new mother, but Fremlin’s writing is incredibly enjoyable and droll and I couldn’t help having a bit of a giggle at certain wry observations.  This really helped carry the book and was part of the reason, I suspect, that I got through this one in a couple of chunky sittings.

The descriptions of the life of a stay-at-home mother with multiple children and a new addition are so absolutely spot on that it is obvious that Fremlin knows whereof she speaks.  Indeed, this edition features an introduction that describes how Fremlin based the story on her own experiences with one of her children.  The walking-dead exhaustion, the scrutiny of judging members of the public, the feeling that one must certainly be losing one’s mind when sleeping and nursing upright in a kitchen cupboard seems like a perfectly reasonable thing to do to avoid waking the household during a night feed will be familiar to anyone who has ever had to live with and care for an infant who is a difficult sleeper.

Similarly, contemporary readers will recognise people of their acquaintance in Mark, Louise’s “man of the house” husband, who seems to have little idea why Louise can’t keep it together on less than three hours of sleep a night, and the family’s neighbours who are by turns nosy, complaining and downright outrageous.  There are a few bits of the book that are “of the period” such as the moments when the mothers in the story are quite happy to leave their unattended infants for hours on end to attend to some other task or errand, but overall, the situations faced by Louise and new mothers of today are remarkably similar.

The psychological thriller aspect of the story relating to the family’s lodger, the mysterious Ms Vera Brandon, unfolds slowly and almost as an afterthought in Louise’s hectic, chaotic life.  This is somewhat made up for in the end however, with an action-packed and sinister denouement that features danger, death and daring escapes.

I thoroughly recommend this as the perfect pick for a fun and creepy holiday read, although it may not be wise to pick it up just now if you are a new mother.

I’m going to submit this one for the Popsugar Challenge under category #29: a book with an unreliable narrator.   You can check out my progress toward my reading challenges for the year here.

Until next time,

Bruce