Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Review: Faith: A Novel, by Jennifer Haigh

Faith without works is dead: It's an unassailable truth for Catholics. But it's also often true that no good work goes unpunished, especially in emotionally charged, mid-priest-sex-abuse-scandal 2002 Boston, the setting for Jennifer Haigh's deftly crafted, deeply affecting new novel 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.


  1. Glad you liked the book,Greg(or should I say,loved it)-I have to take this one off my TBR pile and read before summer ends.

  2. WOW. Alrighty then. Jen at Devourer of Books (The One That Reads Hundreds of Books a Year) said this same exact thing about the audio version. So I have it uploaded and ready to go. My excitement is at a fever pitch after reading this. Nicely done.

  3. To the TBR it goes. Thanks for the most excellent review, I love books that keep you thinking after you finished reading them.


  4. @lady t - It's a light, relatively easy read. It's only when you're done does it start sinking in. At least that was the case for me.

    @Sandy - Enjoy! I'd also read a ton of positive reviews before reading it - so my hype-skeptic detectors were up, but I loved it.

    @Man - This one most certainly does. The word I've seen used most to describe it: haunting.

  5. Wow...I'm so thrilled to read your review on this one! I fell in love with Jennifer Haigh after reading her first novel, Mrs. Kimble and I've read the following two she released, Baker Towers and The Condition, which sadly didn't compare. Faith has been on my wish list for months now, so I was happy to see this review in my inbox. I'll probably revisit your site and comment more after I read it myself!!

  6. I like Jennifer Haigh.


    Stopping by from Cym Lowell's Book Party.

    Stop by my blog if you like for a giveaway of NIGHT TRAIN that ends on July 25.



  7. Oh Greg, What a beautiful review. You've outdone yourself on this one. I'm so pleased to see your opinion as I've chosen this for one of my library's book discussions this year and when I've told some of my customers about the subject matter, they seem turned off. Too close to the bone, perhaps?
    But now, I'll refer them to your website and quote your review and all will be well. Thank you.

  8. @Sally - Thanks so much for the kind words - you made my day! I hope you and your library book discussion group enjoy the novel as much as I did!

  9. The title of the book, Faith, is brilliant, for this is a book not about religious faith, but more about faith in your family. Sheila says to Mike, "Sorry, Mike, but sooner or later you have to decide what you believe." 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. I love those lines, because faith really is an active thing. You can grow up attending mass every week, participating in the sacraments, but to really have faith, you have to choose to believe in something. Family is at the heart of this novel, and Sheila's family has its troubles, like most.

    1. Really well said! Thank you for the very thoughtful comment.