February 1, 2012

Faith, Tested

I've read and enjoyed each of Jennifer Haigh's three previous novels, starting back with Mrs. Kimble, a great book that I'd recommend to anyone. So it was with great anticipation that I picked up the paperback of her latest novel, Faith.

Faith centers on the sex-abuse scandals that rocked the Catholic church and the Boston archdiocese in 2002, focusing in on one particular local family, and a favorite son, who is a priest. Father Arthur Breen is the character at the heart of the story.  As a child, raised by a single mother, he was a shy altar boy with an angelic voice and seemed destined from an early age to enter the clergy.  At fifty, he is accused of molesting a child, and stripped of his church, his profession, and his entire identity, in the span of one afternoon. 

Whether Art, as his family calls him, is guilty or not, is the core of the book. The narrator is his younger half-sister, Sheila, and through her, we explore the dynamics of her Irish working-class, deeply Catholic family.  Sheila is a bit of a black sheep due to a fast divorce and her choice to live as a single woman in Chicago.  She has enough distance from the family to view it objectively, or at least as objectively as any family member possibly can. 

I found the book a little frustrating, not because it was a difficult or slow read, but because each character was kept so much at arm's length.  By the end of the book, I felt that I did have a good understanding of just about everyone (except for the mother, Mary, "a lace-curtain Catholic," as Sheila describes her).  It just seemed to take almost the entire length of the book to get there.  That said, like all of Haigh's novels, this was an absorbing, very well-written book.  Like Haigh's previous novels, Faith is definitely a character-driven work, and, through Sheila's narration, she explores and explains the motivations of each main player. Haigh also nails the wordless, strange maneuverings within every family, the minefields of resentment and other long-held emotions that we all have to pick our way through at times.

I admired (and related to) the great writing in this passage:
"Art's news was unspeakable, by him or by anyone.  I didn't take this personally.  If I felt excluded, injured and aggrieved, that bolus of emotion was at least familiar.  It attends all my dealings with my family, and theirs with me.  Every one of us limps from old wounds.  In a perverse way, they entertain us.  We poke each other's tender places with a stick."
Looking back over the course of the novel, I think another appropriate title might have been Pity, for each of the main characters, Art, Sheila, their brother Mike, the young mother Kath, and her son Aidan, all have reason to be pitied. They are all struggling with choices, with wounds, with circumstances that they have no control over.    As a priest might say: just as we all are.   And there is the great humanity, and grace, of this book.

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