Ernest Hemingway once said that a writer should “convey everything to the reader so that he remembers it not as a story he had read but something that happened to himself.” As a reader, I don’t always need to feel like the story has happened to me, but I do enjoy feeling like it really happened to the narrator. When fiction is written in the first person, I love when the narrator sounds completely authentic and the author fades into the background, making it seem like a memoir. Such a book is FAITH, by Jennifer Haigh.
Haigh’s protagonist, Sheila McGann, is the perfect storyteller about an Irish Catholic family living in Boston in 2002, during the height of the church’s pedophile scandals. A high school English teacher in Philadelphia, Sheila travels to Boston when her half brother, Art, is asked to leave his position in the Boston Archdiocese after an allegation of sexual abuse. At first, Sheila is sure of his innocence, but in time, her conviction falters.
Sheila’s brother, Mike, on the other hand, is outraged and fully convinced that their half brother is guilty of the allegation, and he attempts to find proof that will either validate or discount the charges. Meanwhile, Sheila’s mother is staunchly on Art’s side, while the Archdiocese is simply interested in settling the case. Art, himself, is eerily resigned, saying to his sister, “What will be, will be.”
As Sheila navigates her family dynamics, she reveals herself to be compassionate, introspective, and aware of her own faults. Eventually, she becomes a woman caught between faith and doubt, and she explores this limbo expertly. The story unfolds with ease precisely because the narrator is so perceptive and human. She is willing to investigate all sides of this issue without heavy-handedness or self-righteousness. She offers shades of gray, and it is this nuanced area, of being suspended between believing her half brother and doubting him, that works so brilliantly.
Sheila says, “Art’s story is, to me, the story of my own family, with all its darts and dodges and mysterious omissions: the open secrets long unacknowledged, the dark relics never unearthed. I understand, now, that Art’s life was ruined by secrecy, a familial failing; and that I played a part in his downfall. . . . My penance is to tell this ragged truth as completely as I know it, fully aware that it is much too little, much too late.”
Of course, it ends up not “too little” at all, but is a perfectly executed rendition, which describes the circumstances that shattered Art’s life. As readers, we are kept turning the pages in this creative and suspenseful novel that continues to knock us off balance and make us question our own judgments, our own levels of compassion.
Ultimately, we realize that what’s at stake is so much more than Art’s reputation. An entire family’s faith is at risk, but we see this faith as convictions that have worked more as a strong shield to keep the secrets and abusive practices in place. And as we follow Sheila’s thoughtful exploration into her family’s past, we feel like this is a real person imparting actual events, that a stranger is drawing us into their life, and we are captivated by each detail.