Book review: ‘Faith’ by Jennifer Haigh

In a wave of scandal levied against the Catholic Church in 2002, Father Arthur Breen, a devoted priest in Boston, Mass., has just been accused of the unthinkable: molesting a young, broken-spirited child. When news of Art’s alleged abuse reaches Sheila, his younger sister, she — like readers — doesn’t know what to think. Evidence seems to point toward guilt, but the accusers have more than their own share of troubles. One solid, burning question stings Sheila to the core:

Did he do it?

She doesn’t know, but she’s going to find out.

Jennifer Haigh’s Faith is a powerful, intriguing and engulfing examination of one family’s skeletons and proves a fascinating examination of love, devotion and the long-reaching arms of childhood experience. As you’d expect from a novel named Faith, religion — in this case, Catholicism — plays a big role in each character’s formation. Do they have faith? Do they need it? In whom do they place their faith — and is it misguided? What happens when it’s gone?

Given I’ve had an incredibly heavy month, I wasn’t sure I should read this one now. Pedophilia and church corruption aren’t quite the light-hearted topics I favor for distraction. But once I’d picked up Haigh’s novel, an engrossing story I couldn’t put down, I was too invested in Art’s fall from grace to put it down. And though it moved me to tears more than once (and once while waiting for an oil change at Jiffy Lube, for God’s sake), I couldn’t stop reading it.

I loved the way the novel was framed: a narrative that read like journalism, a memoir from the fictional Sheila McGann about her disgraced brother and all he still means to her. We got enough hints along the way to know the story would be a difficult one, but Haigh masterfully divulges just enough to keep us wondering about Art’s background and future, about Kath and her son, Aidan.

The story was so intricate, so involved, that it was impossible to pluck out one character and single them out as an individual. Art was shaped so indelibly by his early life with Mary, his mother, and her second husband, Tim; Mary’s staunch Catholicism greatly impacted the lives of her three children, and eventually made Art the crown jewel of her affections. When he took his vows and entered the priesthood, Art could do no wrong. Until he did. (Or did he?)

What so captivated me about Faith was my own flippancy while reading. There were times I was absolutely sure Art had harmed Aidan, but then I’d flip right around and scold myself for every even going there. He was a good man — a holy man. Of course he didn’t. Kath was a drug user, a mutilated woman without a soul. But it would be too easy to say she was a liar, a fraud; it was too simple to simply believe her to be A Bad Person. No one is purely bad, nor purely good. Everyone has that darkness and that light within them.

Despite the fact that Sheila is our guide, the novel is really as an examination of Art: who he was; what he believed; how he believed he’d failed. There were points at which my heart absolutely broke for him. Having been raised Catholic, I related to much of their childhood spent in and out of parish halls — but I can’t say I’ve ever given much thought to the sacrifices and loneliness of priests. In thinking about how he’d never have a family, never have what other people have, Art thinks:

“Love to marriage to home and family: connect those dots, and you get the approximate shape of most people’s lives. Take them away, and you lose any hope for connection. You give up your place in the world.”

Sheila seeks to tell her brother’s story in a way no one else has, and in doing so unearths many shocking revelations about Art’s history and her own family’s foibles. Their brother, Mike, has his own share of difficulties — but I found him to be an incredibly realistic, well-drawn character. Though I often wanted to take a swing at him, I understood him as a father of three little boys. That the allegations leveled at Art would hit so close to his own family was another facet I really appreciated.

Faith is one of those books I could talk about all day, dissecting layer after layer. It’s the sort of story you want to shove into the hands of friends, if only so you have someone with whom to discuss it. It’s not always an easy read — indeed, points were so sad that I had to stop reading, and some passages disturbed me enough to bite my lips — but it was never graphic, never tawdry.

It’s about redemption. About penance. About the secrets between parents and children, brothers and sisters. About the shadowy failings we hide from each other — and even from ourselves. But above all, it is about faith. As Sheila realizes in one startling moment, “It was a thing I had always known but until recently had forgotten: that faith is a decision. In its most basic form, it is a choice.”

And you should choose to read Faith. I don’t think you’ll be disappointed.

4.5 out of 5!

ISBN: 0060755814 ♥ GoodreadsLibraryThingAmazonAuthor Website
Review copy provided by TLC Book Tours in exchange for my honest review

13 thoughts on “Book review: ‘Faith’ by Jennifer Haigh

  1. I thought this was an AMAZING book. Yeah there are other molestation stories out there, but this one really is masterful. I loved how it exposed MY prejudices, and like you I kept changing my mind about what I thought had happened. Not a happy book (my book club refused to read it) but it would be perfect for a group discussion. (Also the audio was incredible.)


  2. I was completely immersed in this book when I read it. I also flipped back and forth as to If Father Art did or did not molest Aiden. I was also very moved with the story of his brother, and how he learned so much about Art and his upbringing. This was much more a story of a broken family than a broken priest and it’s systems. I’m a converted Catholic, and I have actually met priests who describe their lives as lonely in some aspects. I can’t imagine that isolation.
    Wonderful review Meg.


  3. Having lived thru the scandal here in Boston, I’ve avoided this because of possible squickiness but I’ve heard non-stop good things about it that I’ve changed my mind — you’ve highlighted some of the layers I think I’ll be intrigued/moved by and I can’t wait to start this one!


  4. This is such a heavy topic – one that I’d normally shy away from, because I can’t imagine having to read about a child that had been harmed in that way. It sounds as if the characters were extremely well-formed and I’m happy to hear that each of the points of view were examined. I’m sure that it does provide a lot to discuss!


  5. Pingback: “Faith” by Jennifer Haigh | Melody & Words

  6. This book really amazed me when I read it last year. Like you, I was totally captivated and had to keep stopping myself from jumping to conclusions.

    I can’t wait to read more by this author, and it sounds like you’re with me on that! Thanks for being on the tour Meg.


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