Jennifer (aka EM)'s Reviews > The Bishop's Man

The Bishop's Man by Linden MacIntyre
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's review
Jan 23, 11

bookshelves: maple-flavoured, the-missionary-position, lonely-hearts-club, hidden-gems, on-da-rock-or-nearby
Read from January 16 to 23, 2011

A quick and gut-reaction 5 stars. It took me at least half-way through to figure out what he was doing, and to shed the preconceptions of what I thought this book was going to be. The last 10050 pages are masterful.



This turned out to be a different novel, a better novel, than the one I was expecting. I know Linden MacIntyre as a journalist, and knew this was about the sex abuse scandals in the Catholic Church. So I expected a journalistic exploration of that topic in novel form. Sorry, Mr. MacIntyre; I misunderestimated you.

This is a novel about damaged people, damaged communication, and the personally destructive power of secrets. It's about loneliness and isolation, and what that does to people. (And strangely enough, it's the third novel I've read, three of three in 2011, that touches directly or indirectly on orphan-dom. I don't really know what that means, but I am the granddaughter of an orphan, and my father was powerfully affected by that, so there's definitely something going on here).

This novel is also about coming from a place – metaphorical, physical – that is defined by poverty, trauma and addiction. A place where everyone is related to everyone (who’s yer fadder? or in this case, who's yer mudder?), but there is little intimacy and little meaningful communication or connection between people. There can't be, because there are such huge gaps in self-knowledge and so many secrets.

The poverty is not just because of a changing way of life that leads people "away" (and priests astray) and leaves those left behind with little to hope for. It is a poverty of spirit built from layers of emptiness that have been laid down over generations as each deals with its own secrets, and most die with them unexorcised.

And it's about all kinds of trauma, all kinds of addiction – personal bedevilment that extends far beyond the priesthood. And yes, it's about the sex scandals in the priesthood too. But these are put into a much broader and much more personal context.

It's also about what the priesthood is – why people enter it and how they struggle to define it for themselves. Beyond that, it's about how the scandals personally affect(ed) those of faith: the wrenching conflict between one's faith, one's trust in one man who represents that faith, and the truth.

What it's not is particularly atmospheric of Cape Breton; i.e., the external landscape of the place, although there are lots of descriptions of wind and rain/snow and cold and general bleakness, but these I feel are secondary and irrelevant. There’s a nod to the loss of Gaelic (and it’s important which character retains it, but I won’t spoil that here). I believe the loss of Gaelic is a metaphor for the loss of faith among these Cape Bretoners, whose island became a dumping ground for "bad" priests. The internal landscape of Cape Breton is well-told, although it's not a particularly flattering portrait.

Here's what I liked, loved even: this book didn't rest on pat explanations. It's too simple merely to say that the forced celibacy of the priesthood leads to aberrant sexual behaviour. Or, that damaged people are attracted to the priesthood, at which point they are damaged further. There is nothing particularly anti-Catholic here (at least, as a non-Catholic, I didn't think so; Catholics might disagree). On the contrary, it's a sensitive and searching portrayal of an issue, and the people involved in it, which respects not just the complexity of their faith but also their humanity.

MacIntyre does a great job of what is essentially a character portrait (more than one, in fact) of a flawed and complex human being who happens to be a priest. Father MacAskill starts as a brittle, weak, ineffective priest who knows little of himself or of dealing with the faithful, beyond performing a duty to the Mother Church that implicates him in the scandals. He degenerates from there. As he bottoms out and confronts his own demons, lo and behold – he becomes not only more human, but also a better priest. (And MacIntyre does a 1000 percent better job of that character arc than I just did, which is why he won the Giller, I'd say). :-p

Well. Anyway. MacIntyre’s thesis – if he can be said to have one – is that nothing is as simple as it seems, and that priests go awry, as all humans do, when they deny or repress – or never know – the truth about themselves.

This is also a portrayal of a crisis of faith not in terms of one man's attempt to understand his relationship to God, but to understand his relationship to himself, to his past and to his calling.

One other thing: most of the reviews I've read comment on the disjointed nature of the narrative structure, with its flashbacks and flash-forwards. You need to be patient with this, because while it's disorienting at first, it gets more cohesive as the plot unfolds (and in fact, I believe this is intentional. As Fr. MacAskill becomes whole, the threads of time are tied together, and the links between past, present and future start to make sense. It’s quite clever.)

Concurrent with that, the dialogue is also disorienting at first. Conversation seems to go nowhere, or seems to rely on some kind of implicit but unspoken understanding between characters to which the reader is not privy. People talk, but there are gaps in dialogue (lots unsaid, lots under the surface), and weird stops, starts and jumps to conclusions as jarring as the jumps back and forth in time. As Fr. MacAskill’s and others’ pasts are revealed, true understanding – connection, even intimacy – starts to emerge. And then, sensible dialogue begins. By the last 50 pages, as the timing and the dialogue become whole and rich, this novel starts to feel entirely worthy of the accolades and awards it won (which is to say that I think criticisms of inconsistency, a lack of sure-handedness or trickery with respect to managing the novel's narrative flow or dialogue miss the point).

In the last third of the book, one of its most interesting (at least to me) themes coalesces, as the dialogue – i.e., not what is said but what is not said – changes: secrets prevent communication which prevents intimacy. And that fundamental, very existential aloneness – beyond sexual to an all-encompassing kind of connection to oneself, one's past, one's roots and family, and one's vocation, not to mention to others – is at the root of dysfunction, dread and despair. (There are several interesting references to existentialism, and Fr. MacAskill himself reads Heidegger).

A powerful novel. Maybe not a complete 5, but let it stand for now.
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Reading Progress

01/19/2011 page 158
52.0% "This is a slow build. Took til now for the threads to come together. I like how he is presenting the tortured logic of the decision-making from within, the impact of the scandals on the faith of the devoted, and the choices they made to protect the Mother Church instead of their flock."
01/23/2011 page 304
100.0% "This is a fantastic book. back later for more of a review."

Comments (showing 1-16 of 16) (16 new)

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message 1: by jo (new) - rated it 4 stars

jo what goes on the bandwagon?

Jennifer (aka EM) oh, it's pretty subjective: stuff I think there's buzz around, either it's on the hipster reading list, or it's won a recent award (or both, although those tend to be a little mutually exclusive). This one won the 2009 Giller.

message 3: by Jessica (new) - added it

Jessica what do you think of this?

I haven't read it yet, but bought it for my brother as we've a house on Cape Breton.

Jennifer (aka EM) I love Cape Breton -- it's so wild and beautiful, esp. on the north Atlantic side. I'm only on p.18, so give me a couple days and I'll let you know more, but initial thoughts: delighted to see him writing like a novelist, not a journalist. By that I mean, he is doing a good job building character, and the dialogue shows an ear for the cadence of the language. The downside seems to be a deliberate avoidance of specificity in the details, but maybe he's assuming we know what he's referring to, or maybe things will become clearer and more specific as we go.

message 5: by Jessica (new) - added it

Jessica hmmm...I'll wait to hear more.
our home is on the western side (near Inverness), still beautiful & rugged.

Jennifer (aka EM) I did the tour around the island many years ago - would love to go back. It's amazing the different character of each side of the island, but so beautiful throughout.

message 7: by Jessica (last edited Jan 23, 2011 10:59AM) (new) - added it

Jessica yes, it's an extraordinary place. The western side and northern part of the island are most beautiful, the eastern side isn't so striking--but well, the cities, Sydney, etc. are there--

message 8: by jo (new) - rated it 4 stars

jo what a fantastically deep and sensitive review, jennifer. i'm going to read this. also, i love reading about priests, and catholicism, and, hm, people. nice person, you are.

Jennifer (aka EM) you're far too kind, but seriously--can't wait to hear what you (and hopefully Jessica, if she also reads) thinks of it.

message 10: by Jessica (new) - added it

Jessica oh, beautiful review, EM!

message 11: by jo (new) - rated it 4 stars

jo she writes like she has a heart, hey? :)

Jennifer (aka EM) awwww, thanks you two! I wrote this for both of you!

message 13: by jo (new) - rated it 4 stars

jo i just re-read this. i finished the book but it would be ridiculous of me to write a review of it when you have such a spectacular one here. i'll link to it, in all 37 social networks i'm in.

Ellen Wonderful review! Glad I read it. I was on the verge of down-grading my rating of this book to 4 stars (thinking I just had a 5-star knee-jerk reaction), then your review reminded me of why I loved it so much. My 5 stars will stand for the time being, too. Thank you.

Rosana Great review!

message 16: by Jennifer (aka EM) (last edited Mar 01, 2012 04:22AM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Jennifer (aka EM) Thanks, Ellen and Capitu! Nice to know people are still reading this novel ... it's well worth it. Anyone know if he has a new book coming out anytime soon?

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