Review: The Penance Room by Carol Coffey
This book is not for the faint hearted, but at least it says as much on the cover. For starters, from the title the readers will know not to expect chicklit. And then, there's the clear explanation that it tells the story of people whose "past is a nightmare" and whose present is "without hope".
The only light on the horizon is 13-year-old Christopher, a deaf boy who has appointed himself the guardian of the troubled souls who, having settled in Australia, now live at his parents' nursing home on the aptly named Broken Hill.
But Christopher has his own trauma to deal with and is shaken from his sleep every night at 3am by memories of the train accident that severed his foot. The poor boy is barely out of short pants but already he feels he has disappointed his parents and is weighed down by shame and guilt. And we're still only at page three.
Carol Coffey's first novel, The Butterfly State, told the story of a little Irish girl with a secret but here she casts her net wide and brings together a cast of characters from the four corners.
There's Mina, a Dutch woman who has survived a Japanese prisoner of war camp in Indonesia; Irishman Martin Kelly, who has been blamed for the death of his father and brother; and, among others, the prim but loveable sisters Penelope and Victoria Miller who "were so hurt as children they never really grew up".
Their individual stories unfold gradually when a researcher comes to record the experiences of immigrants to Australia.
In the wings, Christopher helps coax the residents to unburden a past that has weighed them down for decades. He is blessed (or cursed depending on your viewpoint) with a precocious understanding that lets him see the world and all its cruelty.
But there is beauty too as Coffey brings shafts of light into her twilight world. There's a surprise for Fr Francis, who was forced to turn his back on his first love and enter the priesthood; while Kora, a woman who has lost contact with her Aborigine mother, discovers that life holds joy as well as hardship. There is a lot of pain and grief in The Penance Room, but it also has rich rewards.