Faith. But this isn't a novel about orthodoxy or catechism. It's not even really about the abuse scandal, either. More so, it's a novel about empathy and trust. And it's absolutely riveting.
Father Arthur Breen, a model priest his whole life, stands accused of molesting an eight-year-old boy named Aidan, who he'd befriended and mentored while the boy's mother, a former meth head and stripper, tries to put her life back together. Arthur's Irish Catholic family, including his half brother Mike and half sister Sheila (our narrator), is divided in their loyalties. And frankly, that's about as much as you should know, plotwise.
That's because one of the many strengths of this novel is how carefully Haigh (through Sheila) goes about revealing information. One of the morals of this story is that making judgments without understanding a situation is incredibly dangerous. In fact, in might be delusional — and that's true whether we're talking about religious faith or faith and trust in people. Indeed, as Sheila says, "It was a thing I'd always known but until recently had forgotten: that faith is a decision. In its most basic form, it is a choice."
And so Haigh (via Sheila) gives us a sort of a first pass at describing events, providing readers a framework and just enough information to begin formulating our own idea about Father Breen's guilt or innocence. In fact, as a reader, you feel slightly awkward — you know you're not supposed to be rushing to judgment, but you can't help it. The sex-abuse scandal is an incredibly emotional issue. You try to understand, but you just don't yet have enough information. You either like him or you don't; you either trust him or you don't.
Essentially, you either empathize with him or you don't. But, as Father Arthur Breen himself wonders, "How did anyone know, ever, what another person was feeling?" But to stop trying is to become a misanthrope — to pack it in on life. And whether you're a recovering drug addict or an accused priest, empathy is a form of conscience, a safeguard against doing really horrible things.
This novel is like a beautiful stained-glass window: Amazing at first glance, but even more so when it becomes further illuminated. I laid in bed for a good four hours last night, wide awake, just rolling this novel over in my head. Even more emerges. Every detail in this intricately detailed novel means something, adds something, furthers something. Unlike the play/film Doubt, to which this book is compared frequently, there is a resolution. And it's shocking, haunting, and yes, even fulfilling. Whether you're Catholic or not, you'll appreciate the craft here. Five stars: One of my favorites of the year.