It is the spring of 2002 and a perfect storm has hit Boston. Across the city's archdiocese, trusted priests have been accused of the worst possible betrayal of the souls in their care. In Faith
, Jennifer Haigh explores the fallout for one devout family, the McGanns.
Estranged for years from her difficult and demanding relatives, Sheila McGann has remained close to her older brother Art, the popular, dynamic pastor of a large suburban parish. When Art finds himself at the center of the maelstrom, Sheila returns to Boston, ready to fight for him and his reputation. What she discovers is more complicated than she imagined. Her strict, lace-curtain-Irish mother is living in a state of angry denial. Sheila's younger brother Mike, to her horror, has already convicted his brother in his heart. But most disturbing of all is Art himself, who persistently dodges Sheila's questions and refuses to defend himself.
As the scandal forces long-buried secrets to surface, Faith explores the corrosive consequences of one family's history of silence—and the resilience its members ultimately find in forgiveness. Throughout, Haigh demonstrates how the truth can shatter our deepest beliefs—and restore them. A gripping, suspenseful tale of one woman's quest for the truth, Faith is a haunting meditation on loyalty and family, doubt and belief. Elegantly crafted, sharply observed, this is Jennifer Haigh's most ambitious novel to date. A Q&A with Author Jennifer Haigh
Q: What was your inspiration for writing Faith?
Haigh: When I moved to Boston from Iowa in 2002, the city was reeling from revelations that Catholic priests had molested children, and that the Archdiocese had covered up the abuse. I was reeling too: I was raised in a Catholic family, spent twelve years in parochial schools and had extremely fond memories of my interactions with Catholic clergy. It’s no exaggeration to say that nuns and priests were the heroes of my childhood. Like many people, I was horrified by what had happened in Boston--and, as later became clear, in Catholic dioceses across the country. Faith was my attempt to explain the inexplicable, to understand what I couldn’t make sense of in any other way.
Q: Exploring the interplay between parents and children and among siblings is a delicate art that is not easily mastered, even for seasoned writers. How do you, as a storyteller, work to keep your story emotionally evocative—pulling the reader in with a depth of feeling—without falling into melodrama or treacle?
Haigh: I don’t try to make the reader feel any particular way. I just try to be accurate, to show people as they are.
Q: Faith is told from the point of view of Art’s sister, Sheila. It’s a surprising choice, since she doesn’t actually witness the events in question. Why did you approach the story in this way?
Haigh: It took me a while to figure out how to tell this story. When I read account of priests who’d been accused of sexual abuse, I was struck by the difficulty of getting to the bottom of such cases. Often it comes down to one person’s word against another: only two people know for sure what happened, and sometimes the child is too traumatized to remember it clearly. As Sheila tells the story, she’s struggling to arrive at the truth, to find out whether her brother could possibly have done the things he’s accused of, to imagine what he thought and felt, to get inside his head. In a sense, it mirrors the way all novels are written. To me, writing is an exercise in empathy.
Q: Over the course of four novels, you’ve broadened your skills and honed your narrative dexterity, from the exquisite character sketches of Mrs. Kimble, to broader questions of family, religion, and society in the rich, multi-layered family drama that is Faith. What are you working on next?
Haigh: My current project is a collection of short stories set in Bakerton, the Pennsylvania coal town where my second novel, Baker Towers, took place.
Q: What inspires you as a writer—and as a reader? Who has influenced your writing and who you are as a person?
Haigh: Like all writers, I am a reader first. When my work is going well, I read. When it’s going badly, I read more. Faulkner, William Styron, James Salter, Alice Munro, William Trevor, Richard Yates, JM Coetzee: these are writers whose books remind me what’s possible, why I wanted to write novels in the first place.
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Starred Review. Haigh (Mrs. Kimble) explores the intersections of public scandal and personal tragedy in her superb fourth novel. Set in 2002 amid the sexual abuse crisis that has rocked the Catholic Church, and particularly the Boston archdiocese, Haigh's novel reaches far beneath the headlines to imagine the impact of allegations on one priest's family. Arthur Breen became a priest when such a career path was considered a logical, honorable choice for an intelligent young Catholic man. Sophisticated and worldly in many ways, utterly childlike in others, Arthur is unprepared to cope with secular life when he's accused of abusing a young boy and is subsequently asked to leave his parish. Arthur's younger half-sister, Sheila, in a quasi-omniscient style, narrates the complicated, devastating history that shaped Arthur's life, both personally and spiritually. Although this all-too-plausible story offers a damning commentary on the Church's flaws and its leaders' hubris, Haigh is concerned less with religious faith than with the faith Arthur's family has—and loses, and in some cases regains—in one another. At its broadest, this is a frank and timely story of familial and institutional heredity; at its most personal, the novel is a devastating portrait of a priest who discovers that he's also a man. (May)
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