ISLAND OF THE WORLD
by Michael O'Brien
(Ignatius Press, 2007, hardback, 813pp, $59.90. Available from Freedom Publishing)
Be prepared! Readers will not easily forget Josip Lasta, nor this book. The reviewer (and many other reviewers) was brought to tears on several occasions, having to put the book down to recover and learn.
Michael O'Brien has written his seventh and best novel which follows the life of a young boy named Josip (Joseph) born into a farming life in Croatia in the 1940s, the period of occupation by Italian-German forces.
While the story commences with young Josip's boyhood in a quaint Catholic village full of outdoor adventures, friendships, family, church and his first crush, O'Brien soon unravels the geo-political tangle of the Balkan states.
Growing anxious about rumours of an imminent overthrow Josip's father begins to educate his son on new and more dangerous home-grown threats. These conversations with his father propel Josip irreversibly out of boyhood and into the world of adult concerns.
True to history, the home- grown communist resistance is engaged in a bloody overthrow with Allied backing, and quickly becomes as trigger-happy as the World War II Axis occupation. This violence impacts on Josip's life as the British- backed communist takeover that installed General Tito in 1945 becomes the dramatic launching place of O'Brien's story.
Following his traumatic and bloody childhood Josip eventually faces a brighter future as a university professor with an expectant wife and a small circle of anti-communist friends. This underground movement of thinkers, musicians and artisans, and their periodical journal, make Josip's life both stimulating and dangerous.
As O'Brien unfolds this hazardous story he delicately traces Josip's grief and healing. Now a young married man, Josip can leave the "blood" behind him and start thinking about a future full of hope.
But this is when O'Brien surprisingly immerses the story further into an experience of suffering as Josip soon experiences more bloodshed and violence, with his newly founded family destroyed.
He is beaten, imprisoned and helpless. Will this never end? Thankfully it does, but not before O'Brien has wrestled with important questions about suffering, revenge and camaraderie.
What does it take to make a monster? Can anyone become a killer? A Nazi? A torturer? How far away is Josip from becoming like the wolf that killed his family? Is he alone in the world?
A slow road to healing and recovery emerges from the ashes as Josip literally walks (or swims) his way towards a new life. Readers will find themselves wincing with Josip as he faces the ignorance of Westerners and the shallowness of those unacquainted with suffering.
The book closes on the elderly life of a now well-recognised poet who has reached a graceful, thoughtful and peaceful end in the United States. However, nothing prepares the reader for what happens when Josip eventually returns to his homeland. It is a climax worth waiting for.
At first, it seems O'Brien wants to plunge the reader further into themes of desolation and suffering. Yet it out of these the author weaves a complex tapestry of hope, love, beauty, truth, goodness and salvation.
Arguably, the main theme is the redemption of humanity according to the Christian creed: the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Indeed the cover perfectly captures the book's core question: How does one retain identity, indeed humanity, in absolutely dehumanising situations?
O'Brien takes opportunities to diverge into examinations of art, poetry and philosophy, and particularly, a philosophy of poetry. Other topics covered include political correctness, abortion, democracy, war- funding, media bias, treatment of the disabled and Christian unity.
Hope amid horror
Lest the reader lose track of the many characters Josip stumbles upon in the course of the story, there is an index of names at the back.
Be prepared to get close to this story for there is much captivating detail and readers can expect to find themselves truly inside Josip's mind. One reviewer commented: "I felt like I was in the skin of the main character, Josip Lasta. I have rarely, if ever, been so emotionally involved in reading and had to keep telling myself, 'it's only a book'."
Rarely does a novel engage one on so many fronts while remaining within one character's monologue, rarely punctuated by dialogue and narration. This is what O'Brien achieves in Island of the World with its blend of social, political, spiritual, familial and cultural themes tied into one horrendous yet hopeful life.
Michael O'Brien has written seven excellent novels available through Freedom Publishing. He has an interactive website (www.studi- obrien.com) where one can view and purchase his paintings and iconography. His books have been published in a number of foreign languages, including Croatian, Czech, Italian, Spanish, French, German, Swedish, Polish and Lithuanian.
Luke McCormack is Victorian State President of the National Civic Council.