Friday, October 21, 2011


A five letter word so fraught with meaning that there are some who will refuse to even discuss it,  faith is a powerful thing. What does it conjure up for you? As a kid being raised a Catholic, if we entertained doubts about the catechism and dared to openly question it, we were simply told that we had to believe, it was a matter of faith. When you're eight or ten years old that might be a good enough answer but as you mature you might think that it just doesn't fly. Personally, I'd prefer to entertain faith in the innate goodness of my fellow man, though that's been taking a beating lately too!

As it does in Jennifer Haigh's outstanding new novel, Faith. You don't need to be a Catholic, recovering, former, or otherwise, to appreciate Ms. Haigh's examination of the pedophilia scandal that's been plaguing the church for the past century, but it certainly added to the sense of familiarity I had while reading. You see, my Irish family had a deeply troubled priest in our midst so this novel really hit home.

Arthur Breen is a wonderfully complicated character, a popular and by all accounts successful priest, practicing (you've got to love that word) in a south Boston parish where his days are filled with hospital visits, council meetings, and long, comfortable silences with his loyal housekeeper and cook, Fran. But beneath this tranquil surface run longings and doubts long held in abeyance that bubble to the surface when Fran begins to supervise her grandson after school.

In 2002 in the Boston archdiocese all hell broke loose when it was discovered that abuse of children was running rampant throughout the priesthood and was being covered up by those in authority. Suspicion and accusations abounded in a "his word against mine" atmosphere that was difficult to counter. But this isn't really what Haigh's novel is about as much as it is the catalyst for a heartbreaking novel about family secrets, a failure to communicate, and that word again, faith.

When Arthur is accused of molesting Fran's grandson it seems an outrageous lie, especially to his mother, steeped in the rigors of Catholic tradition, and his half sister Sheila, the one person with whom Arthur can normally be himself. But when Sheila rises to his defense Arthur withdraws even from her, planting seeds of doubt that will plague her conscience as she tells the story in flashbacks.

Every single character in Haigh's brave, tragic novel is so nuanced, so believable, that I felt I knew each one of them. Their motivations, actions and reactions make perfect sense and I love that she doesn't judge them or make caricatures of them. From Arthur's half-brother Michael, former tough guy who married up and made good, to his once bullying step-father, now suffering from dementia, to Aiden's mother Kath, a barely recovering addict wounded over and over by wrong men and wrong choices, Jennifer Haigh has penned a novel that cries out to be a movie with the scope of Mystic River.

I hope that my customers at the library feel the same way since we'll be discussing this novel in a few weeks as our 2011-2012 season gets into full swing. I'll also be tackling Ann Patchet's new book State of Wonder, Tea Obreht's The Tiger's Wife, and Please Look After Mom by Kyung-sook Shin.


TooManyBooks said...

Sally, I thought the book was great!

Sallyb said...

Oh, I just got When She Woke. I saw that you gave it a 5! Can't wait to start it.