One is probably right to approach a 1072 page novel with fear and trepidation, as it is difficult to imagine that there are many books that can sustain one's interest for that long. Like his previous novel, Island of the World, Canadian Michael O' Brien's The Father's Tale is an epic story that richly rewards the reader with its reach across continents as well as deep into the human heart, plumbing the depths of human and divine love, the tension between good and evil, human fallibility and God's providence: a father goes looking for a missing son and is reborn, his character refined by the fire of experience.
Alexander Graham is a bookseller in a small town in Ontario. A widower with two grown sons, he lives alone, consigning himself to living out the remainder of his days quietly if joylessly, bearing the loss of his wife and not knowing how to get on with life. He is a religious man, Catholic, and yet one has the sense that the rituals of his religion have become somewhat lifeless; though believing, he has stopped living but merely waits out his days. All this comes to an abrupt halt when one of his two sons, away at college in Oxford, goes missing, under the sway of some cultic organization. Graham closes the bookshop, borrows the funds needed, and leaves for Oxford, intent on finding answers and locating his son. Unbeknown to him, his journey would extend from Oxford to Finland to Russia and even China and subject him to deprivations he could never imagine.
Along the way there are rich descriptions of the locales in which he finds himself and an array of characters from all walks of life whom he meets, from a Moscow prostitute to Orthodox and Catholic monks of Siberia, to a widow and her two sons and Chinese believers. O' Brien succeeds in opening up the Russian experience in a way that perhaps only Tolstoy or Dostoevsky might have in another time. The protagonist suffers much. Yet it seems God puts His people in his path and offers hope in places where he least expects it.
What O' Brien describes best however is the inner workings of the soul, of a man who reaches the point of despair more than once, confronts doubt, and yet who learns to love and trust once again. To peer into his thinking, into his soul, illuminates our own hearts.
Though the fear of what was coming returned to him a little, he looked upward to a presence and spoke with it and listened to the answering silence. He knew now that this silence was not absence or negation. It was the language transcending all language, and it crossed the void that man's will had made between himself and God.
In no other novel that I have recently read is there such such elucidation of the doubt, questioning, and resulting growth of the spiritual life. Graham comes to the end of himself more than once, realizing that all he has is God. Summing up his experience for his son, Graham says that "It's true that I died a little, maybe more than I know, but my life was given back to me again, and God has brought a great good out of it, out of everything." It's a fitting near end to a book rooted in the providence of God, one all about matters of the spiritual life yet without cliche or formula.
To say more about this magnum opus would be to tell too much. Take this hefty volume (the hardbound volume is nearly three inches thick), prop it up (your hands will soon grow tired), and begin. You could read it on a Kindle more conveniently, but the very weight of this book (nearly three pounds) has a sobering effect. You respect it. And in the end, I believe it will rank as one of the best books ever read, one that I glimpse on my shelf and remember, with love and awe for its economy of excess in words.