'Faith': A molestation charge tears a family apart
Novelist Jennifer Haigh's "Faith" is the story of a priest accused of child molestation in Irish Catholic South Boston. Haigh will read May 20 at Seattle's Elliott Bay Book Co. and May 21 at the Seattle Public Library's Northeast Branch.
Special to The Seattle Times
Jennifer HaighThe author of "Faith" will read at 7 p.m. Friday at Seattle's Elliott Bay Book Co.; free (206-624-6600 or www.elliottbaybook.com). She will read at 2 p.m. Saturday at the Northeast Branch of the Seattle Public Library, 6801 35th Ave. N.E.; free (206-684-7539 or www.spl.org). Sponsored by University Book Store (206-634-3400 or www.ubookstore.com).
By Jennifer Haigh
HarperCollins, 336 pp., $25.99
In her fourth novel, PEN/Hemingway Award-winner Jennifer Haigh tackles a subject as public as headlines and as private as family secrets. In previous novels she has plumbed familial conflicts, but none as portentous as this one.
Father Arthur Breen, Catholic priest and eldest son of Mary (Breen) McGann and stepson of Ted McGann, is accused by a child's mother, Kath Conlon, of molesting her son Aidan. What could be worse in Irish Catholic South Boston?
Haigh's story begins when Fran Conlon, Kath's mother and cook and housekeeper for Father Breen, brings Kath and Aidan to the rectory to introduce them to the priest. Kath has been in and out of rehab, living in a wretched apartment with her junkie boyfriend. Aidan, age 8, who in Haigh's flat delivery is nearly invisible, spends time in the rectory with his grandmother and Father Breen. Their afternoons pass quietly with Aidan doing homework, watching TV and playing. Kath is clean at the moment, working a dead-end job and grateful for Father Breen's help with Aidan.
This state of affairs doesn't last long. Once her accusation is made, for reasons only a junkie would understand, everyone's world is upended.
Sheila, Father Arthur's younger sister, is the story's omniscient narrator, reporting to the reader the reactions of those affected. In so doing, she commits a cardinal sin: telling us everything, showing us nothing. She and her brother Mike, both children of Ted McGann (not of Arthur's father, Harry), have opposite reactions. Mike immediately believes the accusation and stops talking to Arthur, grateful that they do not share a last name. His Protestant wife gets in her licks against the church, refuses to attend their son's First Communion and withdraws from Mike. Arthur's mother is certain that he cannot be guilty; Ted, lost in alcohol-induced dementia, has no opinions left.
The "faith" spoken of in the title is twofold: faith in one's beleaguered church and the faith in each other that exists between and among family members. In this circumstance, both are tried and found wanting. Nothing is what it seems in this sad story. There are other sins going on here, past and present, which have an enormous impact on the outcome.
For all the high drama this powerful premise calls for, Haigh is disappointingly bland and off-key in her approach. None of her characters comes believably to life. This novel, in its characterizations and the unfolding of the real story, is not nearly as satisfying as her novels "Mrs. Kimble" and "Baker Towers."
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