Faith by Jennifer Haigh
Reviewed By: Sheri de Grom
Holding four novels I’ve recently read, I try to decide which one I’ll review. Will it be the one about the family torn apart when their son, a priest, is accused of child abuse? What about the one wherein a young woman doesn’t want a second child? She married into a large Italian family and everyone wants to know what the problem is. She has a deep and unsavory secret. Then there’s the book that portrays mental illness so vividly it’s as though I’m living inside the character’s brain. Finally, the novel that might have been a gentle read, but wasn’t. The book is a roller-coaster ride of past loves, a best friend’s battle with cancer, and difficult family dynamics.
The four novels all meet the criteria for women’s fiction and all deal with emotionally tough subjects. It’s the family tragedies whispered about behind closed doors. Our hearts and souls would never be the same should any of these events slam into our own lives. We wouldn’t remember yesterday because everything we thought was normal would no longer exist in our present reality.
This is especially true of Jennifer Haigh’s latest novel, Faith. I’ve automatically reached for Ms. Haigh’s books without looking at the story-lines since I read her debut novel, Mrs. Kimble. I know I’ll be in for another thought provoking read. Faith surprised me. I hadn’t expected yet another story of sexual abuse by Catholic priests.
But, wait, that’s not what the book is about. Sexual abuse is the emotional setting for this novel but family relationships and secrets are the core message.
Art’s mother is anxious to get him out of the family home. Art isn’t a trouble-maker but he is a constant reminder of her need to hide her troubled past. Additionally, Art’s mere presence seemed to fuel his step-father’s alcoholism in some way that Art himself never understood.
Shelia, Art’s half-sister, is the narrator of the story. She’s compassionate, psychologically astute, and candid about her own biases and blind spots. Shelia is without the self-righteous bitterness of the devout and believes in her brother’s innocence.
The first few pages of the novel portray much about the troubled family dynamics. Art takes the psychological baggage with him to seminary and on to his postings as a priest.
In his early education, Art learns more than Latin, history, algebra and music. He learns priestliness: ways of speaking and acting; of not speaking and acting. Restraint and discipline, obedience and silence.
. . .PG36[After orientation he was assigned to a parish, Holy Redeemer in suburban West Roxbury. He became a priest—a good one, he felt, though where was the proof? His effect on the world, on the souls in his care, was frustratingly intangible. He felt keenly his own inadequacies.]. . .
Art believes he might hang his cassock in the confessional instead of being there himself. He thought he had nothing to offer the souls that confessed to him as he’d never lived life. Therefore, they might as well be confessing to a long black robe on a hanger.
. . .Pg40[As human connection went, he was a beggar at the banquet, unable to refuse love of any kind.]. . .
Art’s assigned a larger congregation in 1994. By 2002 he’s settled into the daily routine of teaching classes, running the large parish and most pleasant of all, his daily interaction with Fran, his daily housekeeper and cook.
Fran has her own problems with an uncommunicative grown daughter and a young grandson. The daughter hangs out with hoods and becomes involved in drugs. Art arranges for the grandson to have a full scholarship to the church’s private school.
Art is called to Boston but he doesn’t know why. He’s never spoken to the cardinal in the eighteen years the cardinal’s been in Boston. They’ve never said one word to each other.
Their meeting is brief, all of fifteen minutes. A bishop takes over the proceedings and advises Art they’ve received legal documents. Matter-of-factly, the bishop informs Art he’s now on administrative leave but would continue receiving his salary and his health insurance. The most important thing: he must vacate the church premises immediately.
Art is not told the name of his accuser or what he’s supposedly done. Art is innocent. His only sin was befriending the housekeeper’s grandson when no one had time for the young lad.
The Boston Archdiocese secures an apartment for Art. Simply put, it’s a dump. A place where perhaps no one will recognize him or his relationship with the Church.
The six months is the first clue he has about his future. This issue is not going to be settled soon and perhaps never.
. . .PG65[He waited until dark driving to the rectory. Upstairs in the bedroom, he unplugged the portable television, its screen the size of an index card. He filled a duffle bag with shaving gear, socks and underwear and a random selection of secular clothes; a few odd shirts, a single pair of blue jeans, a windbreaker emblazoned SACRED HEART BASKETBALL. He left behind a garish Hawaiian shirt and a closet full of black clericals, unsure when—or—if he’d wear them again.]. . .
Sheila is the only person who truly believes Art is innocent from the beginning. Mike, Art’s younger half-brother, is willing to believe anything he hears about Art. It’s bad enough that Art is already the outsider in the family.
It becomes clear to Art that the Church would rather settle claims than fight to clear the names of their priests. Art tells Sheila, . . . Pg207[“The Archdiocese hasn’t investigated anything, and I don’t think they intend to. They’d rather throw money at the problem and make it go away.”
Shelia is furious that Art is willing to go along with allowing a settlement, but Art sees it as an opportunity for something good to come out of a rotten situation. He’s learned who brought the charge and knows the daughter and grandson of Fran desperately need the money. He hopes the settlement will help them get on their feet again.
Faith is an extraordinary novel allowing for much discussion in book groups. Art’s sister, Sheila, builds her case with compassion, precision and awareness. The house that secrets built—the family wears many shades of unrest as their multiplying skeletons begin to claw their way out of the closet.
Could this be a story of “innocent until proven guilty” or “guilty until proven innocent?” Perhaps our society is moving closer to this way of non-justice than many of us would like to believe. Jennifer Haigh explores the issues of justice and of right and wrong.
Faith is an excellent read and the black secrets of the family are spellbinding.