.- Canadian artist and Catholic author Michael O’Brien enamored readers in 1999 with his best-selling novel, ‘Father Elijah’, about a Carmelite priest called upon to convert the antichrist. Now, in his long awaited prequel to that apocalyptic thriller, O’Brien takes readers on a journey into the heart of a man and the small choices which, as he says, “change the world.” Set in Warsaw during the height of the Nazi occupation, Sophia House follows the struggles of bookshop owner Pawel Tarnowski, whom readers will recognize as the oft-referenced protector of Father Elijah’s protagonist David Schaffer.
The book, which takes a considerably slower pace than its heart-pounding sequel, forces its reader to face the realities of sin and the broken images of mother, father, male and female.
O’Brien demonstrates, through these broken images, the nature of original sin, which binds mankind in fear--and the freedom, often surprising, which comes from accepting God’s grace and forgiveness.
In a recent interview, published on the Catholic Exchange website, O’Brien said that “In Sophia House I’m concerned with how symbols function in the mind and emotions…Part of the plot puts flesh on the concept of the power of ‘language’, and the language of symbols is absolutely central to how we perceive and integrate truth and love. If we lose symbolism, we lose our way of knowing things. If we destroy symbols, we destroy concepts. If we corrupt symbols, concepts are corrupted, and then we lose the ability to understand things as they are, rendering us vulnerable to deformation of our perceptions and our actions.”
An icon painter by trade, O’Brien describes Sophia House as something of an icon itself, weaving together situations and personalities--some of which may seem insignificant at first glance--into a beautiful tapestry, only fully understood when looking at the piece as a whole.
Beneath it’s surface as a war novel, O’Brien avoids the somewhat cliché practice of spouting off facts and historical details about the war, and instead plunges the reader headlong into the center of it--through the eyes of an ordinary man trying to avoid, but inescapably caught up in the drama.
Part of the beauty of Sophia House is that, although entrenched within World War II, it transcends it. It’s themes can be translated into any number of events in any number of time periods. Essentially, it is an exploration of the war between good and evil, and the struggle of a good man within an evil world--a classic theme of the great writers.
Perhaps purposely, perhaps not, the book is also something of a testimony to the late Pope John Paul II, (who died some time after the book’s writing) in its Polish setting and emphasis on the arts--particularly theater, which was one of the Holy Father’s forte’s.
Few books or writers, after all, would be so courageous as to include a full, original play within the text of the story.
Many have called Michael O’Brien one of the finest Catholic authors around and have insisted that he be elevated to the likes of Flannery O’Connor, Walker Percy, and even C.S. Lewis. With the publication of Sophia House, and thus, the completion of O’Brien’s Children of the Last Days series, perhaps he is one step closer to that prized fraternity.