Its 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 isnt just an institution - its 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 moved 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 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 wasnt 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.