What happens when one’s foundations crumble? What if the things you believed all your life turn out to have been, well, questionable?
The setting is 2002 in Boston, at the height of the terrible revelations about the Church. Sheila McGann is the younger, half-sister of Arthur Breen, a popular priest who is accused of inappropriate contact with an eight-year-old boy. As narrator, Sheila tells us what she gathered from talking with everyone involved in the events. Mom fears the worst and just does not want to know. Sheila’s other brother, Mike, believes that Art is guilty. The Church just wants it all to go away. And Arthur seems unwilling to mount a real defense.
The primary event of the book is a mystery. Unraveling the threads of that mystery gives the book its forward motion, did-he-or-didn’t-he? Faith
offers the fast pace, the feel of a whodunit. You will keep turning the pages and not want to put it down until you know all there is to know. But there is more to Faith
than the details of what happened, when, to and by whom.
Haigh presents a portrait of growing up Irish Catholic in working-class Boston, and poses questions that go beyond the experience of any ethnic or religious group. The way she goes about her story-telling is to examine a family, and related characters, person by person, peeling back the layers. In an interview for her prior book, The Condition
, on her web site, jenniferhaigh.com, she said,
Every story is a family story: we all come from somewhere, and it’s impossible to write well-developed characters without giving a great deal of thought to their childhood environments, their early experiences, whose genetic material they’re carrying around. Novels are all about causality—how one thing leads to another. Characters choices have consequences that affect the next generation and even the next.
She applies that methodology here. As in her previous book, The Condition
, we get to see events from varying points of view until the entire truth is revealed.
Although I have no direct experience with clerics in the family, I am Irish-American and was raised Catholic, spent twelve years in Bronx Catholic schools and carry the impact of my upbringing with me to this day, for good or ill. (No nasty experiences with clerics, not sexual ones anyway) The way people interact in this story has the deafening ring of truth. Perhaps not all Irish families are so secretive, so unwilling or unable to communicate on an emotional level. But plenty of us are, and Haigh has captured that characteristic to a tee. Why talk about something when you can disapprove in silence? Why confront when you can avoid? There are so many sleeping dogs lying in our families that we should probably be in the kennel business. Maybe this book hits a bit too close to home sometimes. But aside from the personal recognition quotient, there is so much going on here.
How do we define ourselves? Are we solely the product of our environment? Can we escape the influences of our past, the crimes committed by our parents, the crimes committed against us? Where does free choice enter in? How are people changed? What are the dangers of removing the blinders and seeking out the truth?
At one point Sheila says,
“Sorry, Mike, but sooner or later you have to decide what you believe.” 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.
Is it? Is faith a choice? This is not a trivial question in a nation so divided on issues like abortion and separation of Church and State.
Not only will Haigh entertain you with an un-put-downable mystery, but she will engage you with rich, real characters, offer a look at a piece of American experience, and stimulate actual thought as well. Faith
is a truly outstanding novel. Believe it.