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

An Adult Fiction Haiku Review: Tita…

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It’s Mad Martha with you today presenting a very unusual little offering in the world of literary fiction.  I was lucky enough to win a review copy of this one through the LibraryThing Early Reviewers Program and because of this have been introduced to a little gem of a read that is a perfect pick for holiday hermit reading.  The book of which I speak is Tita by Marie Houzelle.  Here is the blurb, from Goodreads:

Tita is seven, and she wonders what wrong with her. She has perfect parents. She puts on plays with her friends, spies on adults, challenges her teacher, and even manages to read forbidden books. She should be happy. But she dreams of a world without meals, and keeps worrying about her mother’s whereabouts, spoiling her own life for no reason at all. Tita wants to be good – but how?
As her small town vibrates to age-old Latin rituals on the verge of slipping away, Tita finds refuge – and a liberation- in books.

TitaPoppet muses on

life and certain adult themes

in multiple tongues

Now I usually make up my own description of books that I review, but I have slacked off today and used Goodreads’ blurb because I really can’t think of how to describe the happenings in the book, as they are a distant second to the characters’ relationships.  Tita is a precocious seven-year-old who is greatly interested in the workings of the adult mind and the way the social world works.  Fortunately for the reader, while Tita is precocious, she manages to be so without the usual irritiating attitude that goes along with it – in a sense, Tita knows how much she doesn’t know and is perfectly happy to annunciate the gaps in her knowledge in order to fill them.  Our fleshlings happen to be Catholic, so the references to Catholicism and its traditions and Tita’s schooling were both familiar and amusing.  If you don’t know much about Catholicism, I’m not sure how you’ll take those passages – hopefully they’ll give a good measurement on the ole’ odd-ometer.

I can best describe this book as charming.  Tita is a sensitive and astute narrator and the reader is left to ponder her observations, particularly those relating to the relationship between her father and mother, from an adult perspective.  I very much appreciated the introduction to French culture and language that I received in reading this book – I have always considered it a particular failing that of the many languages that I have studied, French was (and is) conspicuously absent.  Houzelle has redressed this to some extent, as the French language and its influence are threaded through almost every scene in this book.  There’s also a little glossary at the back, so non-French-speakers can better understand particular phrases or references.

This is a gentle read, where events move at the pace of a Sunday morning breakfast and I suggest that’s exactly the sort of feeling you should bring when embarking on Tita’s journey of musing.

Au revoir mes chers,

Mad Martha

 

Bruce’s Lucky Dip: Tales of the Nunexpected…

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Nuns. Those habit-wearing, good-habit-enforcing ladies of virtue.  One could be forgiven for thinking that a search for tomes about Nuns could turn out to be a banal and unrewarding exercise. As it turns out though, one would be mistaken.

For those unfamiliar with Bruce’s Lucky Dip feature, it involves my good self entering a particular search term into the Book Depository’s mighty search engine, and collecting the most interesting and unexpected results for your perusal.  To that end, I present to you some of the fruits of this most enlightening of search terms…..”Nuns”….arranged in ascending order of raised-eyebrow-height:

Nuns Having Fun Calendar 2013

nuns having fun

The perfect gift for those misguided souls who believe that nuns do little more than eat, pray and love.

Nuns Behaving Badly: Tales of Music, Magic, Art and Arson in the Convents of Italy

nuns behaving badly

I can only assume that the arson resulted from overzealous use of candles during Adoration.

Nun Bowling Kit

nun bowling

This delightful little kit provides the perfect post-Christmas-dinner activity for everyone from Great-Grandma Mary down to little baby Paddy.  As the tagline promises, “It’s Sinfully Fun!”

Flying Nuns Kit

flying nuns

For the slightly more irreverent nun-fancier, this kit includes a miniature catapult and Judgement Day landing mat.  Alternately, use it as a platform for giving expression to your repressed desire to be Sally Field.

Nun-Chuks Kit

nunchucks two

For the most extreme of nun ninjas (or nunjas, as I prefer to think of them), those with aggression impulse control issues relating to early experiences in Catholic schooling, or simply those who support the practical application of the hymn “Onward Christian Soldiers”, these nun-chucks actually have nun-shaped handles. Genius.

The Secret Life of Nuns

secret life of nuns

Nuns. In compromising positions. Not for good boys and girls.

So there you have it. Just a smattering of the nunexpected on offer for those prepared to delve into more spirited forms of book-hunting.  As ever, please feel free to chime in with your own nun-related tomes!

Until next time,

Bruce