Sophia House is a prequel to Michael O’Brien’s Father Elijah. It tells the story of a young Jewish boy, David Shafer, who escapes from the Warsaw ghetto and takes refuge with a Polish bookseller, Pawel Tarnowski. (David later becomes Father Elijah.) This is really Pawel’s story more than David’s. And it’s a heartbreaking story of fall and redemption and self-sacrifice. After A Cry of Stone this is my favorite of O’Brien’s novels.
I especially love the ongoing dialogue between Jewish David and Catholic Pawel that delves into the nature of reality and of art and eventually leads each of them closer to God. Discussions like these could feel preachy embedded in a novel but they don’t here because they really spring from the heart of who each of these characters is. They aren’t screeds O’Brien puts into their mouths but rather the characters themselves and their interactions are the means by which the novelist explores certain ideas. An interesting illustration of this principle occurs by way of the play written by Pawel, the entire text of which is included in the novel, which is itself a device by which Pawel the writer explores certain ideas and is the means by which he comes to terms with certain elements in his past.
Father Elijah was the first of O’Brien’s books that I read but so far is my least favorite. I think I’m going to have to re-read it when I’ve finished all of the other books in the series, I’m thinking maybe I missed something. Perhaps knowing more of the back story and understanding more of O’Brien’s storytelling style will help me appreciate it a little more.