Faith/Jennifer Haigh: Reflections

Sunday, July 31, 2011

It's been a long time since I've written about a book on this blog—many pressing corporate projects added to some responsibilities on my own two forthcoming books (compromised by a little too much time in the dance studio) have thwarted my best intentions.  Throughout all this time, in the smallest increments, I have been reading Jennifer Haigh's Faith, a book highly recommended by many of you.

Faith is a sister's story about a Catholic family.  It's about a year—2002—during which priests across Boston are being accused of molestations, tried by rumor and innuendo before they are tried by the facts.  Sheila McGann's brother, Art, is one of those being accused.  Little by little, Sheila pieces his story together, moving in and out of the facts of her broader, complicated Catholic family with nearly omniscient knowing.

What struck me with greatest force, as I slowly read the book, was this very omniscience.  Over and again, Sheila McGann finds a way to relate far more than she could have possibly witnessed herself—integrating the broader narrative via things overheard or told, through letters, through every possible means of imaginative empathy.  The book begins with a simple sentence:  "Here is a story my mother has never told me."  It sends a signal that what we are about to read is the forthright conviction of a sister who has worked hard to weave together a wholly defensible, but never utterly knowable truth out of stories mostly borrowed.

The search to know is often a jagged enterprise, self contradicting and unsure.  Faith is anything but that:  It is smooth, continuous, full.  Haigh has Sheila dwell not just with Art and those with whom he surrounds himself, but with their brother, Mike, their mother, their mother's second husband, Ted McGann. No stone, in Faith, is left unturned.  Everything is both delivered and explained, and at times I wished that Haigh had delivered less in the way of explanation—had left more for the reader to ponder and parse.

Still, I have enormous respect for the great research that is represented here, the Catholic knowing so embedded in each page.  I have respect for the time Haigh clearly spent coming to terms with her characters and seeing their stories through.  Clearly, Haigh sought to take us beyond the awful headlines of molestation into the workings and demons of the modern Catholic church, and this she does with deep care and telling compassion.

I have new books to turn to now, and after this evening's dance showcase, I'll be getting to them.  A Day in the Life of a Smiling Woman (Margaret Drabble) will be my next iPad read.  After that, I'll be reading Dana Spiotta's Eat the Document and Ransom Riggs' Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children, both of which arrived yesterday.  I need to get my life's balance back.  These books will, as most books do, help return me to me.


Lilian Nattel said...

How do you find reading on the Ipad compared to an ink e-reader?

bermudaonion said...

I need to read this soon. Julie (Booking Mama) has threatened to challenge me publicly if I don't.

Ann said...

I didn't know about this book and am excited to read it. I wrote a short story from a teenage boy's pov about faith shaken by molestation (in this case, discovery of his sister as victim of a trusted spiritual mentor) which I started expanding into a YA novel. Themes of faith, trust, betrayal, forgiveness compelling, but tone and content so tricky. I'm glad to know someone got it right.
Thanks for the recommendation.

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