I’m a fan of family dramas and I grew up Catholic, so I was immediately attracted to Jennifer Haigh’s latest novel, Faith. Set in Boston in 2002, just after the scandal of widespread sexual abuse by priests rocked the nation, the story follows the Breen family as they experience the aftermath of one of these allegations. Narrated hesitantly by Sheila Breen, the half-sister of the main protagonist, the story quietly unfolds through a series of reflections and shocking revelations.
Growing up, Art Breen was groomed for priesthood. As the son of his mother’s first husband, who vanished mysteriously when Art was a baby, Art never really fit in with the rest of his family. He was a quiet, calm child who seemed to embrace his future as a priest. Every parish Art was eventually assigned to brought its own unique challenges, but Art enjoyed his work. Although he tried to connect with his parishoners, he was always somewhat of a loner, save for a handful of people he grew close to.
Seemingly out of nowhere, Art is accused of molesting a young boy. He is forced to move into an apartment and stay away from the church until all legal matters are squared away. Once the media grabs hold, the family is thrown into a turmoil. His mother, a devout Catholic and her son’s biggest supporter, doesn’t believe for one second that her beloved son would ever do such a thing. Sheila, who lives in another state, flies in to support her brother. Though she stands by him, her belief in his innocence eventually begins to waver. And Mike, his half-brother, is quick to judge Art and shut him out of his life. Though Art is obviously broken by the accusations and denies any wrongdoing, Sheila can tell he is holding something back.
At first I was irritated by the confessional tone of Sheila’s narrative. It had a jarring effect and kept pulling me out of the story. The family is full of secrets and transgressions against one another, and just when I’d get pulled in by the drama, Sheila would pop in and make some sort of announcement. But as the story unfolds, I grudgingly came to respect Haigh’s decision to set the book up this way and present the reader with a narrator who wasn’t omniscient. Until the end, Sheila doesn’t know the full extent of Art’s story. She speaks to her brother at length and is able to come to her own conclusions, but in reality, no one but the immediate parties involved can ever really know exactly what took place. In the aftermath and heartbreak, those closest to the members of both parties involved are left struggling to make sense of it all, and Haigh did an amazing job of capturing the denial, fury, and emotional fallout. And the writing? Gorgeous. I had to go back and reread certain sections just to admire the way everything was crafted.
Though Faith revolves around emotionally-charged subject matter that’s based in reality, Haigh manages to broach these difficult issues without being polemical. Her target here is very precise: it’s not about the Catholic church or its cover ups, or even about pedophilia. Through her focused lens, Haigh instead created an intricate book about family loyalties and personal regrets. It’s a story I won’t soon forget.
Faith was published on May 10, 2011 by Harper Books, an imprint of HarperCollins.