My Lovely Frankie
In My Lovely Frankie, the acclaimed YA writer Judith Clarke’s latest novel, Tom Rowland is 16 years old in the 1950s when he has a religious epiphany of sorts. He’s so struck that he defies the wishes of his loving but not terribly observant parents and enrols at St Finbar’s, a seminary on the coast. It’s hellish. Tom is lonely and homesick until he meets the boy in the cell next door, Frankie Maguire, who has been forced to the seminary after his fundamentalist parents catch him having sex (through no fault of his own). Tom falls for the tortured Frankie, causing a swirl of emotions around his relationship with God and Catholicism, his sexuality and his future as a priest.
My Lovely Frankie is beautifully written, but also slow and introspective. Clarke’s protagonist, Tom, tells this story after his retirement: an old priest, looking back over his life literally from a swing seat on his verandah, explaining everything with a sad nostalgia. There’s no urgency or tension in these decades-old events and we know from the first few pages that Frankie went missing from the seminary and that Tom, whatever his feelings were back then, made no serious attempt to find him.
The remaining characters are either good or evil. Frankie is indeed lovely; fey and pixieish, for the most part, with a childish faith and an innocence that serves to excuse his actions, some of which would cast him in a different light were this a different kind of book. The villain, head prefect and school bully Etta, is suitably villainous, as are most of the priests.
Some readers will love these gentle, questioning reminiscences, and there is much here that’s desperately sad. The life of these boys, some as young as 10, is riddled with cruelty and is all too believable. Outsiders who haven’t taken vows are called “externs”, as opposed to the boys, who are “...the only good ones, God’s specials, different from anyone else”, as a student explains. “You feel like you’re getting this hard place, this little black hole inside you, and some day you might even want to hurt people...” is as astute an explanation of institutional abuse as I’ve seen. Some readers, though, might be accustomed to a closer story with a less simplistic and franker view of sexuality. In the end, Frankie’s disappearance is solved, but it has long ceased to be the point. LS
Allen & Unwin, 224pp, $19.99
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jul 22, 2017 as "Judith Clarke, My Lovely Frankie". Subscribe here.