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Faith: A Novel Hardcover – Deckle Edge, May 10, 2011
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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.
From Publishers Weekly
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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The setting is in the Boston area where one of the worst abuse cases came to light.....I know that being Catholic makes it more difficult to read about.
The public gets the cut and dried media version but this book, although a work of fiction, makes one realize that each and every case would be worthy of a full length accounting.
I highly recommend this story, it will make you think about the abuses, the perpetrators and the victims.
I think everyone would agree that the church was in the wrong by trying to cover up so much. In reality, the Voice of the Faithful have succeeded in getting more transparency and the candidates for priesthood are vetted severely, and young boys are not brought in any longer.
The main character, Fr. Art, was destined for the priesthood from a very young age for a variety of reasons and at different times in his life, he experiences doubt in himself and what he
does, sometimes called "The dark night of the soul." This is
a. story that needed to be told and Ms. Haigh did it well.
Faith centers around the child abuse scandal in the Catholic church, specifically Boston in the 2000's when the scandal was exploding in the city. But the novel is really about the McGann family. The oldest son, Art, is a priest who stands accused of abusing a child. His family is divided in their support of him. His brother is disgusted by his mother whose trust in Art's innocence is absolute.
Worse, his sister, Sheila. "If he did it, you'd forgive him," he says to her, and she doesn't deny it.
Sheila narrates the story, assuming an omniscient viewpoint that allows her to tell it from each character's perspective, combining her knowledge of them with the versions they have told her. Faith is another portrait of a dysfunctional family, as sick as it's secrets. Sheila's awareness that by writing it all down, she'll be shattering that silence, had me checking and rechecking the book jacket to be sure this wasn't a memoir.
I thought I knew where the story was going, but was happy to be wrong. Haigh is an expert at depicting the complicated history and specific architecture of family. I am very glad to see she has other novels out so I don't need to wait another year.
-Katie O'Rourke, author of Monsoon Season
Father Arthur Breen, a model priest his whole life, stands accused of molesting an eight-year-old boy named Aidan, who he'd befriended and mentored while the boy's mother, a former meth head and stripper, tries to put her life back together. Arthur's Irish Catholic family, including his half brother Mike and half sister Sheila (our narrator), is divided in their loyalties. And frankly, that's about as much as you should know, plotwise.
That's because one of the many strengths of this novel is how carefully Haigh (through Sheila) goes about revealing information. One of the morals of this story is that making judgments without understanding a situation is incredibly dangerous. In fact, in might be delusional -- and that's true whether we're talking about religious faith or faith and trust in people. Indeed, as Sheila says, "It was a thing I'd always known but until recently had forgotten: that faith is a decision. In its most basic form, it is a choice."
And so Haigh (via Sheila) gives us a sort of a first pass at describing events, providing readers a framework and just enough information to begin formulating our own idea about Father Breen's guilt or innocence. In fact, as a reader, you feel slightly awkward -- you know you're not supposed to be rushing to judgment, but you can't help it. The sex-abuse scandal is an incredibly emotional issue. You try to understand, but you just don't yet have enough information. You either like him or you don't; you either trust him or you don't.
Essentially, you either empathize with him or you don't. But, as Father Arthur Breen himself wonders, "How did anyone know, ever, what another person was feeling?" But to stop trying is to become a misanthrope -- to pack it in on life. And whether you're a recovering drug addict or an accused priest, empathy is a form of conscience, a safeguard against doing really horrible things.
This novel is like a beautiful stained-glass window: Amazing at first glance, but even more so when it becomes further illuminated. I laid in bed for a good four hours last night, wide awake, just rolling this novel over in my head. Even more emerges. Every detail in this intricately detailed novel means something, adds something, furthers something. Unlike the play/film Doubt, to which this book is compared frequently, there is a resolution. And it's shocking, haunting, and yes, even fulfilling. Whether you're Catholic or not, you'll appreciate the craft here. Five stars: One of my favorites of the year.