In Jennifer Haigh's fourth and most compelling novel to date, we learn the troubled history of the Breen-McGanns, a suburban Boston clan whose life was defined and regulated by the Catholic Church. But what happens when the very lynchpin that holds them tenuously together is torn away? The members of this complicated family are about to find out when one of their own is accused of an unspeakable crime, and loyalty and faith are tested in unimaginable ways.
Sheila McGann has returned to Boston from her home in Philadelphia where she works as a teacher. She has long since shed the ties of her Catholic upbringing, but she returned for her brother, Art, a parish priest who has been accused of molesting a child in his care. Sheila is distraught for Art. What a horrible accusation! But deep down, she can't help but wonder, "Is Art capable of something like this? It would be unspeakable to imagine but given how he was raised, can he be blamed?' Sheila sets out to discover the truth and to tell her brother's story --- and, in broader panorama, the story of her whole family --- as accurately as she can: "Here is his story as far as I know it, and what Art told me at the time and what I found out later, and what I still can't verify but know in my heart to be true."
We quickly learn the genesis of the Breen-McGann family troubles, which started in 1951, after their matriarch, then a young newlywed and mother named Mary, is abandoned by her husband. Deeply religious and allegiant to her church, she is granted an annulment, which basically decrees that the marriage never existed. Mary and her young son, Art, are left on their own to make a new life for themselves in their small Boston suburb. When Art was 14, Mary married Ted McGann, a brooding Irish drinker who never met a pub he didn't like. But despite the volatility in the household, for the first time, there was some stability. Two more children followed --- Sheila and young Mike, who favored his father in every way, a drinker and a brawler in his younger days, but now a hardworking family man, with a wife and three young sons.
Perhaps because Mary was embarking on a new life with her new husband, or because Art knew his vocation at the tender age of 14, he was sent off to St. John's Seminary boarding school in preparation for becoming a priest. Always thoughtful and quiet, a man of letters and virtue, Art seemed well-suited to a life in service to God. But what if Art had been more than a "man of God" and just a man? Could he have done this terrible thing he has been accused of? As Sheila probes her complicated family history to find out the truth about her brother, good or bad, she quickly learns that no one is above reproach and "Every one of us limps from old wounds. In a perverse way, they entertain us. We poke each other's tender places with a stick." The accusation hangs over the McGann family like a dark shroud, and everyone's faith is tested in ways they never could have imagined.
FAITH is an emotionally charged and thoughtful novel about a topic that is never too far from the headlines. Without being overly disparaging against one side of the argument or the other, Jennifer Haigh manages to make the issue more personal: What if a member of your family was accused of a heinous crime like this? Each character has to struggle with his or her own personal crisis of faith, and the story plays out in a completely organic fashioin, with a few twists and turns along the way. The book is a perfect companion piece to John Patrick Shanley's play (and later film) Doubt, examining a family, grounded in their religion, who astonishingly finds themselves torn apart at the hands of that same conviction.
Reviewed by Bronwyn Miller on May 16, 2011