Chosen Boys by Petra Molloy (Escalator Press, 2019), 340 pp., $30
In the author’s words, Chosen Boys ‘deals with the sexual abuse of a seven-year-old and the effects on him, his family and community. It’s about the culture of concealment in the Church. It’s also about the resilience of a people, when their lives are being destroyed by the betrayal of the Church in whom they trusted.’1
Jack, the boy in question, is abused by Father Bane, whose name is an old English word meaning scourge, ruin, death, plague or destruction, a poison that causes death. (This language play is a typical Molloy touch.) It is made plain in Chosen Boys that there are many layers of concealment in the lead-up to the abuse, and that other abused boys exist in each place this priest has lived.
The desire to record the culture of concealment might have been Molloy’s initial spur to writing the novel, but there is much more in Chosen Boys than just sheeting home responsibility. The novel is a well-written, subtle and wide-ranging exploration of many personal and institutional factors that enabled or led to the abuse of this boy, and of the ways individuals and communities responded. Molloy suggests the people in the story are not helpless. She uses the word ‘resilience’. People in the novel respond in various ways according to their own resources and ideas. Although there is no redemptive miracle of healing or restoration, by the end of the novel a future is visible for Jack, and other repairs and consequences are in train.
In addition to its socially significant content, Chosen Boys is an artful piece of writing. The more you look, the more you see the author at work building the story by laying down trails and hints, and the more you see the beauty and insightfulness of her imagery. For me, this layered construction, the imagery and what Molloy calls the ‘resilience’ of the people, leaven what could have been a rather dark reading experience.
In her essay in The Spinoff Molloy says Chosen Boys is ‘a fictitious story sprung from my own outrage’. Outrage is a very bitter and fierce emotion and in its raw form does not make for much reader enjoyment or comfort. It seemed to me that, in this novel, Molloy’s outrage has transformed itself into a subtle and humanistic enquiry into the circumstances that allowed or even encouraged this abuse.
As she says in The Spinoff, Molloy is outraged by the Catholic Church’s betrayal of institutional power and its duty to protect its people. Her own long family history of Catholicism and her knowledge of its beauty and sacredness suffuse the book. In this way the book is written from deep inside the culture of Catholicism.
Like all writers, Molloy’s culture is a mix of history and place and time. Molloy was born in the Netherlands to Dutch Catholic parents and grew up in New Zealand, where she married a man of Irish Catholic background and raised her children in the Catholic world. That is a very specific set of cultural circumstances. As I read this book, I wondered at times whether I, as a non-Catholic, would understand this world enough to be able to review the book, but I decided that readers are not, and cannot be, identical to the culture of a book’s author. It may be that I, with my own cultural mix, have been insensitive to some significant Catholic nuances or drawn some conclusions with which the author would disagree. If so, I apologise.
One of the first culturally embedded ideas I noticed was the title, Chosen Boys. In the novel, altar boys are literally ‘chosen’ by priests for the role and, from within that group, some boys are ‘chosen’ by Father Bane for abuse. Being chosen in the first sense is an honour but in the second it is a curse. The novel also devotes some time to sons who are chosen by their families to be priests. This is portrayed as a heavy, almost intolerable burden. When I discussed the idea of ‘chosen’ boys with a ‘raised-as-Catholic’ cultural consultant, I was told that a vocation comes from God; priests are in this sense ‘chosen’ by God and are therefore not ordinary men. The novel shows the link that forms in Jack’s mind between God and communion, the place the abuse occurs, and the priest.
I came to this book with some baggage and, given the incidence of sexual abuse in our community, this will be the case for lots of readers. I read it as someone who, in a professional capacity, has heard hundreds of children talking about their experiences of abuse, and who has sat with men who have been abused by priests, as they tried to come to terms with their past. That part of me wants stories like this to be told because it helps break down the idea that this behaviour doesn’t happen, or doesn’t happen to ‘nice’ families, or that boys should be able to shake off the effects and be happy. That part of me was also edgy in case the story would fudge the effects of abuse or make the situation appear simple. I worried that the descriptions would be awkward and perhaps ring false.
As a novel reader I had different concerns. I wasn’t sure whether I wanted to read a book that deals with a predator who sexually abuses a seven-year-old boy. The book sat on my bedside table for a few days while I gathered courage.
The set-up of the novel put my concerns to rest immediately. It begins with a description of Jack’s world: his neighbourhood, his best friend and neighbour Isaac who is Sāmoan, Isaac’s mother Failalo, Jack’s mother Ursula, the central place of the Catholic Church in their life, the Auckland summer weather and the way Jack’s penis acts in the bath. There is something sweet about this world but Molloy makes it clear that Jack isn’t living in paradise. In the opening chapters Isaac’s brother Lagi is called ‘FOB’ (fresh off the boat) by pālagi kids, there is a fight, and Lagi comes home with a black eye. Failalo wonders if she should have left her children behind in Sāmoa where they would be safer. This world is Auckland. It is the 1970s. The people are Sāmoan-born, Pākehā, and a mix of Pākehā and Māori. The dawn raids are happening. The economy is in recession.
Sexual abuse enters this world when Jack is chosen to be an altar boy, shortly after he joins a class of children preparing for their First Communion. The abuse scene does not confront the reader with descriptions of exactly what was done in a physical sense, and nor are there strange euphemisms. Molloy’s method, and I think it is extremely successful, is to show the situation in which the abuse happens, in depth, from Jack’s point of view, rather than the details of the abuse itself. Then she shows Jack’s reactions to all that is happening:
But a weariness has settled on him. He’s in a mute underworld. When someone speaks to him, he sees their lips move and their mouth open and shut like a goldfish, but it’s as if he’s deaf. Sometimes he feels the sound flap about his ears as it tries to get in. His mother’s voice is like the whirr of a bird’s wing. ‘Jack … Jack!’ she says. He can feel the warmth of her breath. (51–52)
Molloy comes back time and again to the changes in Jack as his mother becomes increasingly worried about him. I think she captures perfectly the way someone pulls back from the world when they are desperately unhappy and unable to connect with anyone, even the people they love most.
By the time the abuse happens, the reader may have noticed that Molloy uses a wide version of the third person omniscient point of view. Often this is called an ‘eye of God’ point of view, but in this story the eye of God has special significance, so I will just say that Molloy gives the reader access to the perspective and sensibility of almost everyone in the story.
This craft decision is a key aspect of the novel and is its greatest strength and its most controversial aspect. It allows Molloy to give us situations as the person feels them. At first I found this a little disconcerting because the changes were so frequent, but after a while I realised that I was building up a wide, almost communal sense of the individual worlds that make up the whole world of the story. The world of the story is these people, these societal structures, this suburb, in this city, at this time. In this way it reminded me of George Eliot’s Middlemarch, with its subtitle ‘A Study of Provincial Life’. I was interested in each person’s ‘reality’ and enjoyed the way this awareness accumulated as the narrative returned to each person and new layers were added. Sometimes Molloy takes the reader back in time and we see what brought the characters to this situation. Here is Jack’s mother Ursula remembering her own First Communion:
She is walking down the aisle towards the altar, wearing her God-clothes: a white muslin dress with edges embroidered in gold thread. When she spins about, it spreads like a fan before spiralling downwards to brush against her legs like thistledown. Her mother had braided white daisies into her hair. She thinks this must be how a queen feels. She knows the story of her namesake, the princess saint, so that is who she imagines herself to be … Her lips shape into a serene smile, and she lifts her head a little higher, fixing her eyes on the crucifix hanging behind the altar. (29)
This magic is part of Ursula’s history. This is what First Communion means to her, and she expects good things for Jack when he takes his First Communion. Molloy does the same with Failalo. By allowing the reader to ‘enter’ certain characters early on in the story, Malloy gives Jack’s, Ursula’s and Failalo’s perspectives prominence so that they form the platform from which we view everything that follows.
Father Bane’s perspective appears in Part Two of the novel after we have seen him through Jack’s eyes and know some of the harm he has caused. One strength of this point of view is that the reader gets access, in a sympathetic or at least uncriticised way, to the thoughts and feelings of Father Bane. This part of the story was the first time I have seriously thought about what pathway might lead a priest to abuse boys, and I am grateful to Molloy for putting forward some possiblilities. As we revisit Father Bane in different scenes, we gradually build up a picture of how the world, and especially boys, appear to him. Here for example, he watches some boys playing:
He becomes lost; he always does when he watches them. There’s a touch of the immortal about the lithe young bodies, the fluid stretch of limbs, all freedom and ease. He forgets, just for a time, the foreboding that hangs over him of his own decay. Their faces are aloof. They are of another world, supple and beautiful and young. (167)
We gather together the fragments of his view of children. He sees them in a trance; there is a throb in his body, a warmth. After he has abused Jack he thinks ‘a wordless understanding’ has been forged between himself and Jack. Molloy gives a pretty strong hint that Bane has been abused himself, describing him as ‘trapped in what he is’.
The point of view Molloy uses has its own small ‘p’ politics embedded in it. It shows that everyone’s inner life is significant. When they do terrible things, as Father Bane does, they are not foreign and evil and incomprehensible. When they are ‘absent’ and neglect their responsibilities, as Father Brennan, the priest who lives with Father Bane, does, they have their reasons. Everyone is part of the community.
Molloy’s decision to tell some of the story from the point of view of Failalo, the matriarch of the Sāmoan family who are Jack and Ursula’s neighbours, has brought some controversy. As I understand it, the question is whether Molloy has the right to tell a story from the point of view of a character from a culture other than her own.
Molloy explained her own perspective on this matter in her essay in The Spinoff. Here she aligns herself with Hari Kunzru:
British-Indian writer Hari Kunzru argued: ‘Good writers transgress without transgressing … they are humble about what they do not know. They treat their own experience of the world as provisional. They do not presume. They respect people, not by leaving them alone in the inviolability of their cultural authenticity, but by becoming involved with them.’
In writing fiction there is no single answer. There are many powerful reasons why you should tread with care into a story that is not yours to tell – reasons that rise from historical, political or social imbalances. However, writing is also about imagining how others feel. It’s about creating empathy. To suggest that writers should stop writing about characters unlike themselves would be ridiculous. It would prevent Molloy writing about Father Bane, for example.
Readers will make their own decision about whether they are convinced by Molloy’s argument that engaging with other cultures creates empathy. The question of whether Molloy writes about this family and the wider Sāmoan community in a sufficiently ‘humble’ and ‘provisional’ way to satisfy readers from that culture will also be answered differently by each reader.
In terms of ‘creating empathy’, and the frame in which we see the different cultures, I noticed that in this story the only large-scale banding together to keep children safe is done by the Sāmoan community, through its traditional aiga structure. I also noticed Failalo’s strength, her values, her stoicism and her beauty. Whether I could have seen all this if the story had not been partially told through her eyes is an interesting question. It would have been a very different book if it had been written entirely from Jack or Ursula’s point of view.
In summary, this is an expansive novel, a broad church. There is time to mention a lot of human concerns, from the pleasure of looking at a pantry full of preserves to how you live through your childhood. Molloy sees and finds inspiration in Pākehā, Māori, Sāmoan, Ancient Greek and Catholic viewpoints.
I appreciated reading a story set in Auckland in the midst of the dawn raids. I appreciated reading a New Zealand version of the sexual abuse of children by priests. And I greatly appreciated Molloy’s skill as a novelist.
- Petra Molloy, ‘What was she thinking? A palagi on why she wrote in the voice of a Samoan’, The Spinoff, 22 January 2020.
LYNN JENNER lives in Raumati on the Kāpiti coast of the North Island. She writes memoir, literary essays and poetry. Lost and Gone Away was a non-fiction finalist in the Ockham New Zealand Book Awards in 2016. Her first book, Dear Sweet Harry, won the New Zealand Society of Authors Best First Book of Poetry prize in 2011. Jenner’s most recent book is Peat (Otago University Press, 2019). For more about her work see her author website pinklight.nz