Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Review: Faith by Jennifer Haigh

The pedophilia scandal in the Catholic diocese of Boston in the early part of this century is certainly one that is well known by everybody who can read or who has a TV set. Jennifer Haigh uses this setting to present us with a story of a family, the McGanns, steeped in the traditions and superstitions and faith of the Boston Irish Catholics of that period.  Haigh has the daughter Sheila tell the story.  Fr. Art Breen,  the oldest son, is accused of pedophilia by a single mom whom he has befriended.  Mike, the younger brother who had been a cop for awhile, assumes his half brother is guilty.  Their mother refuses to believe the accusations, and although the newspapers jump right in, the church refuses to discuss it, Art refuses to hire a lawyer, and it is Sheila who decides she must determine the truth of what really happened.  It is her quest for the truth that allows us to see how different versions of "Faith" can exist on so many different levels.

This is a book that has many stories:

  • There's the Irish Catholic Boston pedophilia story.
  • There's the story of priestly vocations - what is it that draws men to this way of life?  How do they live their lives of quiet loneliness?  What kind of training do they get to handle those difficulties?
  • There's the family story:  how does the mother relate to her adult children? How does the sister reconcile her feelings for the brothers? What impact does this scandal have on the other brother's marriage?
  • There's  passion play of characters in addition to the immediate family.  The accuser, the supposed victim, the various clerics and officials all contribute to the dynamics of belief, guilt, secret-keeping, forgiveness, and redemption that are the story's hallmark. 

I found the device of using the sister to narrate and drive the story a bit confusing at first, but can't imagine a better way to bring all the divergent views and motivations together.  Therese Plummer does a spot-on job as a narrator in  giving us the Boston Catholic viewpoint and accent. This is a story written compassionately, and with great insight into the many aspects of events that happen when such an accusation is flung into the air.  Jennifer Haigh gives us a caring and sensitive look at the Catholic Church and its struggles over the past decades - going back to Vatican II and working forward.  She gives excellent explanations of rituals, traditions, and a way of life that will be familiar to those who have lived it, and understandable to those looking in from the outside.

What she discovers, and what she does with the information is best omitted here to avoid spoilers. It's a remarkable book that treats a very distasteful subject with objectivity, understanding, and empathy, while allowing the reader to process it from his or her own perspective.  Well worth the read.

Title: Faith
Author: Jennifer Haigh
Publisher/Format: Harper Collins Audio, (2011) 10 hrs, 6 mins
Narrator: Therese Plummer
Subject: Pedophilia, Irish Catholicism
Setting: Boston
Genre: Fiction
Why did I read this book now? The audio was available on sale at Audible, and it was a subject that interested me.


  1. It has to be a fairly disturbing emotional read. I'd like to get to it one day.

    1. I probably should have emphasized a bit more how good this one is at approaching the subject unemotionally. There are no graphic scenes, no hysteria. Just plain "what is happening? How did this happen? Is it true?" It emphasizes a family relationship, and in particular a feeling of "middle-ness" i.e., the sib in the middle being torn between those on either side of the age divide. It's a splendid family relationship study even more than a pedophilia study.

      I hope you do have a chance to read it.

  2. Mystica, I didn't find it at all disturbing. There's no graphic content. My book club discussed this earlier in the year, and even the most sensitive readers among us enjoyed it. The abuse is alluded to and told through the haze of decades-old memory. This is a good read and excellent for discussion!

    1. LisaMM...I hadn't thought about this as a book club option, but I'm putting it on my list now. It certainly would generate some interesting discussion in our group. So glad you enjoyed it and thanks for stopping by.

  3. I forgot to say, "Great review, Tina!"

    1. Thanks....always nice to feel appreciated.

  4. oh, I am sure this one would punch my buttons.
    but I will quit while I am ahead and keep my opinions to myself. :-)


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