Jennifer Haigh’s fourth novel, Faith, tackles territory all too familiar from newspaper front pages in recent years: allegations of sexual abuse by Roman Catholic clergy. Rather than indulging in sensationalism or re-working clichés, though, Haigh’s sensitive treatment of the material actually offers hope—of a sort. Her narrator, Sheila McGann, is a lapsed Catholic whose older half-brother Art Breen, a Boston priest, has been charged with molesting his housekeeper’s grandson. Sheila offers an account of her struggle to retain faith in Art, piecing together his story from his confidences in her, as well as those of their younger brother Mike, their mother, Art’s accuser, and various members of the working-class parish Sheila fled long ago. Although she attempts to resist re-entanglement in her anguished community of origin, Sheila finds much to love in the brokenness there.
Among this novel’s many strengths is its ability to conjure up a certain kind of urban ethnic Catholic life: parish council squabbles, plastic covers on the living room furniture, marital tension rooted in the Notre Dame/Boston College rivalry. Granted, the close-knit neighborhoods (as insular as any West Virginia holler); the free-flowing alcohol, even (especially!) at wakes; and bully-priests and ticket-fixing cops all border on stereotype, but Haigh’s characters are so convincing that the setting’s details ring true. When Mike, a former brawler who has cleaned up his act to become a model dad and award-winning realtor, starts chasing an ex-stripper barely out of drug rehab and throwing the f-word around like a character out of Good Will Hunting, he somehow remains sympathetic. (How could anyone in his situation do anything else?, the reader wonders in dismay.) Haigh gives Mike’s wife Abby, a Lutheran from the Midwest, legitimate grounds to blame Roman Catholicism for all the craziness around her, but goes on to suggest that the situation is not as simple as she thinks.
Few of Haigh’s characters are simple, either. A couple of priests in walk-on roles are villainous, and the novel never fleshes out Abby as fully as it might, but even she is complex enough to be aware of Mike’s affair but keep quiet for her own reasons—maybe. And with Sheila as narrator, Abby’s somewhat limited characterization makes sense. After all, Sheila seduced Abby’s younger brother on Abby’s wedding day, and still asks herself, “Am I still that wounded and vindictive girl who wanted to put things even? To make myself known to this Abigail Nelson, who had taken my brother. To show her just how easily I could take hers” (159). Well into the novel, Sheila reveals some of her wounds, as well as those suffered by Art and Art’s accuser, Kath Conlon—not to justify their wrongs but to reveal their context. Even Sheila’s father, who appears at first to be simply a stock Irish drunken lout, proves himself to have been an erstwhile hero.
The novel’s gradual revealing of truth makes it a plotting marvel. Readers wonder nearly all the way through, Is Art or isn’t he guilty of abusing young Aidan Conlon? but, along the way, Haigh makes us wonder about so much more. If he’s not guilty, why did Kath, whom Art had so generously befriended, accuse him? Why is the Church so eager and Art so willing to settle the lawsuit? Why do Sheila and Mike struggle to believe Art’s innocence? Has Sheila lost her capacity for deep human connection? What is the source of Art’s unease about his own identity and vocation?
In the end, the book does establish that Art is guilty—but not of what we thought. Nearly all of Haigh’s characters are guilty of something, but they also prove themselves capable of grace and even heroism. The Roman Catholic Church is guilty, too, and Haigh doesn’t take the same pains to show grace or heroism at work in the institution, but she doesn’t seem to have a vendetta against it, either. Faith’s concerns are larger and more humane: to show that we all suffer, and we all sin—that we all break faith but nevertheless remain capable of giving and receiving love in the midst of whatever messes we find ourselves.