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

Book review: ‘Backseat Saints’ by Joshilyn Jackson

Ro Grandee has been running from her ghost of a past for years now — but not even her husband’s unforgiving hands can shed her of her old life. Rose Mae Lolley — the hardscrabble girl she was in Alabama — still simmers beneath Ro’s perfect housewife persona. Now settled in Texas with Thom, her brute of a husband, Ro tries to make peace with the unpleasant hand life has dealt her — and keep her abusive spouse as calm as possible.

When a gypsy catches Ro’s attention at a nearby airport, she begins to question the many choices leading to her violent small-town life. At the top of her list is the sudden flight of her mother, who left her in her father’s drunken hands when Rose was young. When she searches her heart, Rose can’t help but also think of her first love, Jim Beverly. Jim swore he’d always protect her, but he disappeared just when she needed him most. Now determined to save herself before Thom changes everything irrevocably, Rose hatches a plan that may finally give her peace — and room to seal the past forever.

Joshilyn Jackson’s Backseat Saints is an emotional, disturbing and incredibly well-written novel centering around one of the most unique characters I’ve ever encountered. Throughout this compelling novel, Rose is Ro Grandee, Rose Mae Lolley and Ivy Wheeler, filling out each woman completely and in a different way. Her many incarnations are fascinating, and Jackson did a remarkable job of crafting an unexpected, believable tale.

To start, it’s impossible to discuss Backseat Saints without delving into domestic violence. Rose — temperamental, damaged, beautiful Rose — is a battered woman. Thom is a terrible, frightening brute — a man I wanted to come to a violent end almost from the beginning. There were parts of this book that were almost impossible to get through. I listened to this one on audio over the course of a week and, though I was desperate to know what would happen, my stomach often ached with anxiety. If I’d been reading a physical copy, I’m sure I would have skipped large passages.

Despite its disturbing subject matter, Backseat Saints was utterly absorbing. Jackson based a multi-layered tale on a broken narrator I cared for deeply, choosing to trust her despite her bad decisions. Each unexpected plot twist brought us closer to understanding how Rose became Ro, and I spent most of the story waiting for her to finally break free of Thom’s terrible bonds. All I wanted was for her to taste sweet freedom. But I knew that freedom had a price.

I loved Jackson’s peripheral characters, too, especially the kindhearted old dear Mrs. Fancy. Parker was a nice parallel to the horrible force that was Thom, and even Jim Beverly had a certain appeal through Rose’s eyes. After finishing Backseat Saints, I learned this book is a companion novel to Gods In Alabama. The latter explores the history of a sidebar character and greatly explores the fate of Jim Beverly, a character that fascinated me in Backseat Saints. I’m glad I didn’t know what became of him as I was reading. Everything about this book was a total surprise to me.

Listening to Backseat Saints on audio was a pleasure. Jackson herself narrated this strong Southern fiction, and her lilting twang was both comforting and engaging. Rose was brought to life by Jackson’s pitch-perfect narration. She did a wonderful job of differentiating between characters, too — even if her male voices sounded a bit hokey. Having Jackson read her story aloud was like Rose climbing into the car with me, vowing to fill me in from the beginning.

Fans of Southern fiction, women’s fiction and family dynamics will find a unique, unforgettable tale in Backseat Saints. The role of Rose’s Catholic faith in her decision-making was fascinating, too, and I felt like I’d been on an epic journey with her by the close of the novel. I’ll be backtracking to read Gods In Alabama next, and I have a feeling I’ll love it just as much. Jackson has an enthusiastic new fan.

4.5 out of 5!

ISBN: 0446582379 ♥ GoodreadsLibraryThingAmazonAuthor Website
Personal copy won from Chick Lit Is Not Dead