Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Faith: A family torn in half by the Catholic church

Faith: A Novel, by Jennifer Haigh
My rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Sheila McGann, a lapsed Catholic daughter, returns to Boston to try to figure out what has happened to her fractured family. Her beloved older brother, Art, has been accused in the Boston archdiocese priest sex abuse scandal. Her younger brother, Mike, is convinced he's guilty, while her mother is in denial and her father is too far gone as an alcoholic to understand what is going on.

Faith is one of those books in which you do not necessarily identify with any of the characters, but you care what will happen to them. We know very little about Sheila, the narrator, except for the fact that she's a damaged soul and unable to form long-lasting attachments. She describes her entire family as detached and undemonstrative, perhaps because of her angry drunk dad and her detached, bitter, and stubbornly Catholic mother. None of these characters lead fulfilled, happy lives, and they are unable to reach out to embrace one another in their deep sadness and grief.

I am not a Catholic but am married to one. This book is soaked in the traditions and culture of the old American Catholic church. In that culture, priests were (are?) not to be questioned...they were to be revered.

Faith has all the complications I expect in a great book. None of the characters are inherently good or bad, and the truth is far more complex than one would expect. Haigh does an excellent job of peeling back layer by layer of Sheila's complicated family structure and exposing the grave weaknesses and loneliness inherent in the whole idea of Catholic priestly celibacy...and the underbelly of the Catholic church, which has continued to ignore the devastating acts done in its name.

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