Sunday, February 26, 2017

Faith by Jennifer Haigh

So, when I read the inside jacket on Faith by Jennifer Haigh, I was intrigued but also unsure as to whether I actually wanted to read the book because at some point, I just got exhausted about hearing about the Catholic sex abuse scandal.  I grew up Catholic, which gave me the cultural perspective if you will and spent a lot of time in the Greater Boston area, having gone to college there and then relocated just North of there as an adult.  I was hesitant because I didn't want to re live the same stories and reactions over and over and over again - I thought that there were only a certain limited number of ways that one could tell this story. But I was very much mistaken.

Jennifer Haigh has written three novels previously but this is the first one that I have read by her and it told, what I thought was going to be, the same old tired story in a completely different, humanitarian and refreshing manner. The story begins from the perspective of Sheila McGann, an Irish-American Catholic that grew up in a devoutly Irish Catholic family in Boston (along with all the assumptions that this entails!) two years after the events that she is talking about have occurred. She had taken a vow of silence about the events - more of a promise to her older half brother Father Art - that she's breaking by telling us readers about what happened. Art's early life is laid out by Sheila - their mother was abandoned by Art's father when Art was an infant and when their mother remarried Sheila's father, he was very distant from all of the children and not just Art. So when Art learned that he enjoyed the Catholic rituals and the comfort it brought him, he became a priest - not expecting that it is a burden in addition to a shield.

The biggest question that was presented by Sheila was how does a priest navigate being human in addition to being a priest because priests have to deny a big part of what makes people human - their sexuality, marriage and connection, sometimes even family. She handled it deftly and intelligently in big part because her narrator - Sheila - was fantastic. She was candid about her biases and faults. Sheila talks to us about regret and the book actually contains a fair amount of suspense for what it's about - in many ways it reminded me of the movie Doubt starring Meryl Streep in that regard. I thought that it was masterful to navigate a scandal of this magnitude from the perspective of a sympathetic and flawed (but not in the way you  may suspect) defendant who is seemingly apathetic as the faith of his family is tested and shattered and which forces his family to decide who and what to believe. This is a truly amazing book and one that I think I will revisit at later and different points in my life. 

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