Novel explores priest scandals with sensitivity

Book review: 'Faith,' by Jennifer Haigh. Harper, $25.95

The exquisite new novel by the best-selling author Jennifer Haigh does something that doesn't seem possible right now -- shed new light on the pedophile priest scandals that have forever changed the Roman Catholic Church.

Newspapers and TV shows were saturated with reports of the crimes, the acts were made even more repulsive by the sheer number involved in the abuse or in the coverup, and believers and victims were left struggling to make sense of an institution that seemed damaged beyond repair.

In spite of this saturation, Ms. Haigh's wonderful talent as a fiction writer allows her to tell a story of heartbreaking personal struggles.

"The sad truth is that such tales are no longer rare," begins Sheila McGann, whose brother is another Boston-area priest to be accused of sexually molesting a young boy.

Sheila is a middle-aged lapsed Catholic who is estranged from her family. She returns when her brother is suspended from the priesthood to help him redefine his life outside the church.

She's the best kind of narrator -- smart, judgmental and often angry. She loves her brother but is not blind to the kind of life he's led. Her narrative speaks to the power of the fictional point of view as part confession, part investigation.

She examines all aspects of her brother's life beginning with his calling to the church and the problems he faced as a priest. "I understood that his life lacked certain kinds of human closeness," she admits.

The author's insights into the Catholic community are originally rendered, even though they showcase characters who might be considered cliches. She writes of the alcoholic, absent fathers and the mothers whose nightly rosary radio programs are their only entertainment.

Before day care, these women had to find someone to help them care for their children. The parish rectory was often the only solution. Altar boys were always grade school boys who spent weekdays assisting at funeral Masses. Priests were trusted because they were men of God.

Besides her ability to examine characters with exact precision, Ms. Haigh is also a master of plot. She interweaves her characters' stories so well that their cause-and-effect matter to the outcome of her main story line.

That approach seems an obvious element of fiction but there aren't many writers who seem to do more than present an incident and then re-examine that incident from different angles.

Never obvious or forced, Ms. Haigh relies on her characters to advance her narrative. She is a subtle writer who illuminates the nuances of human nature with sheer authority.

Painful and poignant, this is a human tale translated into a suspenseful read. Unlike John Patrick Shanley's stage drama, "Doubt," "Faith" deals much less with innocence or guilt and much more with interpersonal relationships, the Catholic community and the solitary life of the celibate priests.

Shelia's exploration leads her to understand that people are capable of all kinds of sins and that faith is always a personal choice, not something that can ever be dictated by others.

Perhaps she was not wrong to have left the church. Because surely if the men who have been chosen to speak for God are capable of such atrocities then maybe that God isn't the savior that so many Catholics have bet their lives on.

Sharon Dilworth is the author of the novel "Day of the Gingko" and professor of English at Carnegie Mellon University. First Published June 12, 2011 4:00 AM


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