books, Friday Recommends

Friday Recommends (Please, Hear Us Out!): Faith, Jennifer Haigh

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How do you recommend a novel that centers on a priest accused of sexually abusing a young boy?

The first thing you don’t do is tell someone that’s what the book is about. I (Ben) quickly learned that when I tried to recommend Jennifer Haigh’s Faith to a customer at my place of employment.

Because while the book is about that, it’s a great deal more. Set in Boston in 2002 as allegations of abuse in the Catholic church were exploding, Faith is a family saga, told from the perspective of the middle sibling Sheila, whose older brother Arthur is the priest accused, and whose younger brother Mike becomes entangled in the life of the accuser. Faith is an ominous title (another reason it’s a hard sell), but Haigh is less concerned with religious belief than the kind of feeling that holds a family together — or tears it apart. In less capable hands the subject matter would be the stuff of tabloid drama. Haigh writes with delicate, precise grace, and there is never a moment in this difficult story where she veers into melodrama.

What I want to tell the customers I recommend Faith to is that you can write a beautiful, redemptive story about an ugly subject. Because Sheila did not witness the events firsthand (she is the only member of the family to have moved away from Boston, and thus has the outsider’s eye), she is left to piece together the story based on her conversations with all involved. As Haigh put it in an interview, giving Sheila the narrative was an intentional choice:

It took me a while to figure out how to tell this story. When I read account of priests who’d been accused of sexual abuse, I was struck by the difficulty of getting to the bottom of such cases. Often it comes down to one person’s word against another: only two people know for sure what happened, and sometimes the child is too traumatized to remember it clearly. As Sheila tells the story, she’s struggling to arrive at the truth, to find out whether her brother could possibly have done the things he’s accused of, to imagine what he thought and felt, to get inside his head. In a sense, it mirrors the way all novels are written. To me, writing is an exercise in empathy.

Like Sheila, Haigh was raised Catholic, and Sheila’s crisis of faith (though she long ago lost her own) feels authentic and lived in.

There are numerous twists in store, and Haigh gives the reader a satisfying resolution that feels both plausible and shocking. So despite the ample reasons you may feel you have to steer clear of this book, I’ll suggest simply that you do what I did: Pick it up and read the first nine pages. It’s an unusual place to begin, but Haigh knows what she’s doing. If you’re not pulled gently into the story by that point, go ahead and set it aside. No harm done. My guess is you’ll keep going, and find the trip, though bumpy, is more than worthwhile.

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