Book Talk: *Faith*, by Jennifer Haigh (TLC Book Tour)

Faith: A Novel
Jennifer Haigh
Harper (May 2011), Hardcover (ISBN 0060755806 / 9780060755805)
Fiction, 304 pages
Source: ARC from publisher, via TLC Book Tours
Reason for reading: Blog tour, personal interest (known author)

Opening lines*: “Here is a story my mother has never told me.

“It is a day she’s relived a thousand times, the 21st of June, 1951, the longest day of that or any year. A day that still hasn’t ended, as some part of her still paces that dark apartment in Jamaica Plain, waiting.”

Book description: 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 parish in suburban Boston. When Art finds himself at the center of a scandal, 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.

Comments: It’s actually a bit sad that the first thing that comes to mind about the Catholic Church in the 21st century for many people is the pedophile-priests scandals. Granted, one reason for that is that the Church has, in many respects, handled the whole thing poorly – shuffling accused perpetrators to new parishes, paying off claims to make them go away, and essentially adopting a policy of denial at the institutional level. But the Church isn’t just an institution – it’s its people, too. Jennifer Haigh’s new novel, Faith, explores on the effects of the scandal on the people in one Boston family.

Haigh’s earlier novel, Baker Towers, also featured ethnic Catholic characters, but the church plays an even larger role in the lives of the Irish-American McGanns of suburban Boston, whose eldest son, Arthur, hasn’t lived outside it since his early teens – until Easter weekend of 2002, when everything instantly changes. The Boston Archdiocese has been at the epicenter of the crisis, and it reacts quickly – and in its own interest – to protect itself when an accusation is made against Father Art.

While Art’s mother Mary refuses to hear anything against him, his brother Mike is all too ready to believe the charges. Their sister Sheila – the only member of the family who has broken away from both the Church and Boston – just wants to know what really happened.

Sheila’s efforts to get at the truth, and to record it, form the narrative framework of Faith – and for me, that framework was problematic. I’m fine with first-person narration, third-person narration, and shifting points of view. However, I’m not a fan of the first-person narrator who drifts in and out of the story primarily as an observer and reporter, relating the actions and thoughts of other characters in an “as-told-to” manner. I’m not saying it isn’t an effective device – it works well enough here, and having a narrator who is a part of the story, even tangentially, did enhance its emotional resonance – but it can also come across as overly deliberate and self-conscious, which I think happened here at times.

Even so, I was quickly drawn into the story itself, and despite feeling that being filtered through Sheila’s perspective keeps the other characters at a slight remove from the reader, I still found them complex and convincing. The story’s path wasn’t entirely predictable, and I appreciated being surprised by some of the turns it took. But Haigh’s strength in this novel, as it has been in her previous ones, is depicting the complications of family relationships – here, they’re colored by the multiple meanings of the title. Religious faith, as reflected in the beliefs and practices of the Catholic Church, obviously plays a large role, but so does the concept of “faith” conveyed through belief and trust in those we know and love.

Faith explores a timely topic in an intimate and unexpected manner, and makes for a thoughtful and memorable read.

Rating: 4/5
*All quotes are from an advance uncorrected proof and may not precisely match the finished book.

Thanks to TLC Book Tours for the opportunity to join this tour – please visit their site for more information about the novel and other reviews!

*This book will be eligible for nomination for the 2011 Indie Lit Award in Literary Fiction – nominations open in September 2011*

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