Saturday, July 16, 2011
FAITH by Jennifer Haigh (2011) Harper Collins Canada, 318 pages
If you read and adored Linden MacIntyre's Giller Prize-winning THE BISHOP'S MAN, then you are definitely going to want to pick up a copy of Jennifer Haigh's most recent novel FAITH.
All families tell stories about themselves, stories that become mythic in the re-telling, but there are other tales that remain secrets until someone, intentionally or not, provides the great reveal. For me one of those long-kept truths was offered to me on my first trip to Ireland. There, my cousin Billy took me to a family plot and pointed out not only his parents' graves and that of his brother Eric who died at three, but also the grave of "Aunt Peg's baby." I was gobsmacked. When I returned to Toronto and asked my grandfather (Peg's older brother) about that baby, his first response was an angry, "who the hell told you about that?" With further probing he went on to unravel the shame the family had felt when Peg, unmarried, got pregnant during WWII. Although a nurse who ought to have known better, Peg tried to hide the fact of her growing womb by wrapping it tightly in bandages. The result: a stillborn child and permanent damage that meant she would never be able to get pregnant again. Underneath my grandfather's anger was a profound sadness for what might have been for his little sister.
In FAITH, narrator Sheila McCann returns to Boston when her older half-brother Art, a long-serving parish priest, finds himself at the centre of a scandal that rocks the foundation of their family, not to mention the extended Roman Catholic community. Their mother remains in denial, while Sheila's brother Mike has already convicted Art in his heart and Art himself refuses to defend himself against the perplexing charges.
What is extraordinary in Haigh's unravelling of Art's tale is the insider intimacy with which she writes about the monkish existence of RC clergy. Throughout Sheila doubts her brother's decision to choose a life with such "elaborate privations." His incredible response: "It helps to be a child with little understanding of what he is forfeiting." Sheila confides that it is her "penance to tell this ragged truth as completely" as she knows it--an antidote to the "canon of approved stories" that "are told in the manner of repertory theatre: hang around long enough and you'll hear them all." With such an invitation to the reader to sit a little closer to listen to the likely prurient and certainly upsetting details, Haigh grabs you by the hand and insists that you bear witness to all that has occupied Sheila since her brother's public disgrace a few years' previous.
Father Arthur Breen's story is a complicated one, made all the more difficult by long-protected secrets that have been the source of his own personal shame. By all accounts he is a devout priest and a kind man to whom "even a single life seemed a towering accomplishment." When presented with the opportunity to serve as a father figure to his housekeeper's grandson Aidan, Art takes on that responsibility in earnest, ensuring that Aidan have a place in the second grade at Sacred Heart while his reformed drug addiction mother Kath tries to get her grownup act together.
Like Sheila and her brother Mike, I found myself vacillating between being convinced that Art was guilty of the oblique crime of which he is accused and just as firmly believing that he could not possibly have made such a transgression and that was why he never defended himself against that very accusation. And, when an unintentional and initially enigmatic slip of the tongue clarifies the villain of the tale, you will be outraged. As Sheila confesses, "although they may not forgive me for it, I write for my mother and Mike. If they don't wish to know certain truths about themselves and each other, they should at least know" what we have lost. She writes Art's story "to open the curtains, and let in the sun."
Isn't that what all good fiction does?