John Watt is a retired academic, a former Catholic seminarian, and a first time novelist. Crooked Vows is the story of Thomas, who suffers trauma and amnesia, on his way to his first posting as an assistant Catholic priest, although the novel is framed as the recollections of a much older Thomas, who is a widower and not a priest. The setting, for that younger Thomas, is Western Australia in about 1963.
In the recollections of the older Thomas, the younger Thomas attends the funeral of another priest who has drowned himself. The implication, which is only slowly teased out, is that this other priest, Father Kevin, is a child molester who has been accused by Thomas.
He had some misgivings about that funeral, but went in spite of them. It was an awkward occasion with few people there, other clergy most of them, conspicuously avoiding saying anything real about the man they had come to bury. Full of silences and denials and careful detours around what everyone knew: what the man had done, who had exposed him, how he had died, what had driven him to take that way out. Nothing was openly acknowledged; instead, smooth platitudes about a life spent in God’s service.
But, rather than pursue this plot line straight away, we take up with young Thomas, aged 23, who has spent all his adolescence and young adulthood in the confines of all-male Catholic seminaries. It turns out that on a flight between Perth and Albany, the plane has gone off course and crashed in the dense jarrah forests on the coast west of Albany (400 km south of Perth on the south coast). Thomas who has walked for days westward along the beach to Windy Harbour, a very remote fishing village, is apparently the only survivor, although when he sets out from the crash site there are not one but two sets of footprints.
Before he can be ordained as a priest, the archbishop has instructed Thomas to undergo a course of psychotherapy, to see if he can recover his memory and resolve the question of the second survivor. The therapist, Macpherson, who is a protestant, an atheist, and a reader of Hobbes, Hume, Spinoza and of course, Freud, questions Thomas as much about his faith as he does about his adventures and we are subjected to some very tedious ‘doubts’.
When he stumbled in to Windy Harbour, Thomas was carrying the book, Butler’s Lives of the Saints (abridged), so at each session Macpherson gets Thomas to read the relevant ‘life’ for the day of the crash and the following days, to prompt his memory. So Dec 1 is St Sabas, Dec 2 is St Bibiana, and so on. This works a treat and after each reading Thomas effortlessly recounts the adventures of that day. The plane crash; waking outside the crashed plane to hear the other passengers burning to death; discovering he has company, a young woman, Jane; recovering a couple of hiking packs from the providentially unburnt tail section; making their way over the sandhills to the beach.
I won’t say any more about this part of his adventures, except that, as he acknowledges, Thomas has lots of issues with his unexplored sexuality, and an unsavoury tendency to peeping tom-ism.
The patch of shade is barely enough for two people so although he has carefully placed the rucksack between him and Jane, she is still within arm’s reach, lying on her back, eyes closed, apparently asleep. His gaze, as if it has a life and intentions of its own, strays over her body, registering the way her breasts push up under her once-white shirt, taking in the stains of mud and sweat on her clothes, noticing that her legs have relaxed slightly apart, and a fold of her skirt has slipped into the small space between them …
Father Kevin, it turns out, is a priest with a very run down parish to whom Thomas is assigned while he sorts out his therapy. I suppose it is not possible these days to write a book about Catholic priests without addressing the issue of child molestation, so this is what we build up to in between Thomas’s sessions with Macpherson.
Finally, as a train buff I couldn’t help myself and had to look up the service between Perth and Albany. In the 1960s the Albany Progress ran 3 nights a week, so I’m not sure what a not-yet-priest was doing on an expensive plane flight. Anyway, I hope Watt has gotten all of this Roman Catholic priest stuff out of his system now and, like Thomas Keneally, can go on and write something else.
I have been arguing with my family that if you’re not writing compulsively by the time you’re 20 then you’re not going to be a writer. Watt has no doubt over a long career as an academic (in Philosophy) turned out many well written pieces. Indeed, this book is written in a craftsman-like manner, but it has no spark. The members of my family, who fully intend one day to be writers themselves, say that I am wrong. I generally am.
John Watt, Crooked Vows, Wild Dingo Press, Melbourne – due for release June 2016