switterbug (Betsey)'s Reviews > Faith

Faith by Jennifer Haigh
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Jul 08, 11

Read from March 28 to 30, 2011

Jennifer Haigh exerts a sublime spin on the unreliable narrator in this probing, poignant saga of an Irish-American family hailing from South Boston. Sheila McGann, the central narrator, left Boston and her Catholic faith years ago while her family stayed in "Southie." The cardinal premise is the question of whether her half-brother, Art, a once esteemed and trusted but now disgraced and defrocked parish priest, is really guilty of alleged egregious acts. This is 2002, when the Archdiocese of Boston is in the whir of sexual scandal and suppression of criminal child abuse.

The story is told as verity is sought through Sheila as first-person witness to her family history. She serves as a sieve or net and sometimes a buoy or beacon and even a trespass or misstep as she harnesses the voices of her family and other witnesses. With her own voice, she intimately addresses the reader. Her destination is the hopeful arrival at truth and exoneration.

Sheila, as narrator, is like the conscientious driver who reliably navigates known roads, and aims to steer well through dim or dark patches and thick blankets of fog. But the cursory compass of her mother's stoicism, Art's dubious determinism, and (her brother) Mike's aggressive loss of faith in Art keep Sheila and the reader in the alternating shadows of fact and fallacy. We're on a guided (and sometimes inadvertently misguided) tour of one family's hell and well of secrets, lies, and fault lines. We move in time with Sheila to parse gospel from myth.

What we do know is that Sheila's mother had two husbands. The first man fled when Art was a baby, and the Catholic Church subsequently annulled the marriage. The second one, Ted, is the alcoholic father of Sheila and Mike, a man whose liver is now the size of a moving van and whose brain is the size of a pea. He lives in the basement of the house with his baseball on television and fragmented memories. Once a tyrant, he is now a pussycat.

Sheila's mother, still attractive in her sixties, is the repository of guilt, denial, and appearances. Her preference for Art above her other two children is sinfully transparent and her store of secrets and silence is woefully debilitating. Mike lives ten minutes away with his urbane Lutheran wife, Abby, who detests all things Catholic. Their sons, much to Abby's opposition, receive a Catholic education. Their marriage becomes strained after Art's disgrace from the parish, and Mike vows to find out the truth as Abby's hatred and mistrust of the Catholic Church is vindicated and exacerbated by the scandal. Furthermore, Sheila's attempt to communicate with Art is thwarted by his evasive passivity.

The story's progression from shadow to light is finessed by Haigh's ability to organically and gradually tease out the repressed and unknown facts and annex it to Sheila's existing information and beliefs. Nuggets of truth are mined from artifact with shattering grace, and the weight of the past and the sorrow of the present intersect with astonishing clarity. The author took a potentially explosive and sensationalistic premise and turned it into a predominantly quiet, tenacious story of doubt, faith, and redemption.

The novel is equally appealing to the secular or orthodox, and Haigh's natural and luminous prose shimmers on every page. There's no preaching or melodrama glossing the story or lurid and commercial exploitation lacing the events. It is a deliberating but nuanced treatment of a subject too often made smarmy and shrill by the media. The focus is the substance of family and the binding and severed ties that tangle the heart.

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Comments (showing 1-6 of 6) (6 new)

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message 1: by Becky (new)

Becky Be careful..."Southie" is South Boston; the South End is very different. Southie is old school, very Irish, tight nit neighborhood (think Good Will Hunting, Gone, Baby Gone). The South End has transformed itself in the last 20 years and is very upscale, high gay population, lots of art galleries, etc.


switterbug (Betsey) Thanks, Becky. I should know this, hailing originally from Fall River. I wish I could remember what the book said, and if the book made a mistake (or just me?). Have you read it?


message 3: by Becky (new)

Becky Haven't read it yet.


Joanie It's actually the South Shore, south of Boston, not South Boston or the South End. Sorry, feeling protective of my home town!


Suzanne great reviepw!


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