Like faith itself, this compelling, deeply introspective novel by Jennifer Haigh, is filled with mystery and power. It centers around a Catholic priest who is accused of sexually molesting an eight year old boy. But it’s really a story about family relationships, and the way our faith in our family (or lack of it) can have irreparable consequences.
“Most of you have heard, by now, what happened to my brother,” Sheila McGann says, as she begins this retrospective narrative of her half -brother’s story. A middle aged woman, estranged from her family and her faith, Sheila tells the true story of “what happened” to Father Art Breen. It’s a “ragged tale,” one filled with half-truths and unspoken emotions, secrets that lead to disaster for everyone. Sheila is unsparing in her analysis of each person’s reaction to these horrifying accusations. Her mother, the strictest of all Catholics, refuses to acknowledge the possibility that her eldest and favored son could have any complicity in the situation. Her brother Mike, however, is quick to judge, and turns his back on his half-brother without even offering him the opportunity to defend himself. Such discussion would have been fruitless anyway, because Father Art has his own demons which have little to do with his guilt or innocence in regard to these specific charges. Demons which cause him to retreat defenselessly into his shell of resignation. Ultimately, the scandal brings many long buried secrets to light, and forces each member of the family to confront some of their own deeply held beliefs, leading to the redemption we all crave.
Jennifer Haigh has created a character driven novel that is suspenseful as well as insightful. It illustrates how a pivotal event in a family can call into question everything you believe about yourself and the people you thought you knew well, and the way each person responds alters the shape of the family forever.