Faith is the book I've been waiting for Mary Gordon or Alice McDermott to write. These women are leading writers of Irish-American fiction, but neither has taken on the subject of the sexual abuse scandals in the Catholic church. Jennifer Haigh has done it instead, and done it well.
I was a little unsure at the beginning, in the way I am always unsure when starting a book steeped in a current news issue. Would it be exploitative? Would it trivialize the issue? Or wallow in it? The answer is none of the above. This is a really good book about a sensitive topic.
Faith tells the story of Arthur Breen, a Catholic priest accused of the sexual abuse of a young boy in Boston in the early 2000s. The book isn't so much about whether or not Arthur is guilty, but is more the story of Arthur's youth, education and life in the Catholic community in Boston. It's also about his siblings Sheila and Mike, who careen wildly among the various emotions brought on by the charge against their brother.
I don't want to give away too much detail here because the question of Arthur's guilt or innocence is important to the plot, but I will say that Haigh allows us, too, to experience the varying emotions. Is Arthur creepy? Sad? Totally innocent? A monster? A victim? All of these at once?
How tempting would it be, if you were writing this book, to try to draw conclusions about the causes of the church's scandal? To make generalizations or sweeping statements? People do that all the time about this issue. Haigh masterfully avoids those urges and instead has written a story about one man, about his family, and about the bad things that can happen in life. I loved it.
Becky Holmes blogs about books at A Book A Week.