Review: Faith by Jennifer Haigh

28 Jul

During the early part of this century (that would be 2000’s), nothing rocked the country in a post-9/11  era like the priest sex-abuse scandal, especially in its epicenter of Boston. There was a sense that the trust inherent in the priesthood – of course you can leave your children alone with a priest! – shifted dramatically. And the expectation of innocence was shattered. Confidentiality was no longer a privilege and secrets became dangerous things in the Catholic church.

It’s hard to imagine a book with more secrets in its pages than Jennifer Haigh’s new novel, Faith: A Novel. Set during the scandal in Boston, Faith is narrated by Sheila, the half-sister of an accused priest and told as an epilogue to the unfolding of Father Arthur Breen’s tragic fall. Sheila knows only what she’s been told – by her and Arthur’s mother, by Arthur, by her other brother, and by the clergy secretary that worked for the priest (who is also the grandmother of the victim). She doesn’t live in Boston, though she grew up there, and her geographic distance creates an actual distance from the events of the book. As a reader, I also felt that distance which allowed for a bit more objectivity when judging Father Breen’s innocence or guilt. Sheila for her part believes that her brother is innocent. Until the moment that she almost doesn’t.

Let’s be clear: this isn’t Doubt. In John Patrick Shanley’s play (and in the subsequent Oscar-nominated movie), you just never know if the accused priest is guilty or not; you’re right along side the everyone else who suspects, but cannot prove, guilt. Haigh’s major conflict is not about abuse – though you do always feel a twinge in the process of reading it of not being sure; the central conflict is about trust. No one in the book doubts that Father Breen has been a dedicated member of the clergy and has served his community in the way that the very best priests can and should do. There’s a niggling feeling, like, maybe…no…no…well…maybe. Father Breen is an upstanding guy, but there a few things that make you wonder. Or at least make you understand how he could be accused of such a horrible thing.

Haigh handles each revelation of information – by both the narrator and by Father Breen – so carefully and precisely that you never see the bombs coming. It is such a skillful way of constructing a story. The suspense is inherent though you’re never sure whether Haigh is actually going to reveal whether Breen is guilty or not. But the beauty of the story and the way she writes it is that it almost doesn’t matter. I just kept turning pages – not to find out guilt or innocence – but to find out the fate of this man and his family. It is absolutely captivating, in a very real and human way.

One of the things that struck me about this book is the way it stays with you. I have said before about books as soon as I finished them, Oh this will be in my top five of the year. And then two weeks later, I’ve forgotten them. But this one, it’s haunting, and I’m still churning it over and over in my head. One thing that’s risen to the surface in all that tumbling is a reflection on the way that popular sentiment has a way of convicting people before they even get a chance to say a word. It’s heartbreaking that, throughout Sheila’s narration, we get everyone else’s opinion or verdict before we hear from Arthur. Even Sheila, who believes to her core that her brother is innocent, can’t bring herself to ask him out right. We’re so used to condemning the accused in the public eye before official judgement is given – and that is as much a lesson of this novel as anything else. I was reminded of this book once again when the Casey Anthony verdict was handed down. That is the mark of a successful novel, in my opinion. One that makes  you think about your place in the world, and how you treat everyone else in it. Beautiful, remarkable novel. I can say with certainty, this is going to be in my top books of 2011. Highly recommended.

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6 Responses to “Review: Faith by Jennifer Haigh”

  1. Ellen Rhudy July 28, 2011 at 8:57 am #

    I read one of Haigh’s novels last year (The Condition?) and wasn’t a fan. I’ve been skipping over reviews of Faith because I’m not sure I want to try her again, but it sounds like it may be worth it, that some of the things I disliked about The Condition (slooow pacing, obsessive focus on details of the family) may work very well in this book. I’m intrigued, and I guess it’s time for me to place this book (however hesitantly) on my to-read list.

    • Rachel July 28, 2011 at 10:32 am #

      I have The Condition on my shelves and I haven’t read it yet, so I can’t speak to a comparison, but Faith is pretty compact in terms of pacing and info about the family. I wasn’t at all bothered by slowness whatsoever. You should definitely read it :). Thanks for stopping by!

  2. Kathy July 28, 2011 at 9:21 am #

    I am right with you on this one. I read it about a month ago and I continue to find myself thinking about it. Great review as always!
    My rview is here http://bookdiary2010.blogspot.com/2011/06/faith.html

  3. Clinton Kabler July 28, 2011 at 9:43 am #

    I’ve not read FAITH, yet. I’m inclined to give it a try. However, I will comment on your statement “it stays with you.” I’ve had great reads, similar to you, that I do not think about further. Then, I read something that upon finishing my feeling is lukewarm. After mulling the read, I realize its impact which comes full circle over the next few weeks. Examples include Coetzee’s WAITING FOR THE BARBARIANS, McCarthy’s THE ROAD and Bolano’s 2666. In the case of the last one, recommended by The Reading Ape, I cursed him while in the midst of the 1000 pages. However, the novel comes to mind regularly.

    Great review!

  4. Greg Zimmerman July 28, 2011 at 10:13 am #

    You’re right – it IS haunting. That idea – you tweeted that word when you finished – was sort of in the back of my mind as I read. And there’s no better way to describe the post-read experience.

    Very good point that this is no Doubt – I wish I’d emphasized that more in my own review. And I agree that the slow burn of information is a fantastic storytelling strategy – the reader almost has to make a snap decision, but then feels guilty about it as s/he wavers back and forth. And how everyone gets all mixed up with each other because of history, circumstances, etc., adds just another level of intrigue to a book that was already quite intriguing.

    Thanks again for recommending this – I loved it too!

  5. Brenna July 28, 2011 at 12:58 pm #

    This sounds well worth the read. I love books that make me reconsider preconceived notions and my place in the world. Great review.

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