Jennifer Haigh writes the kind of thought-provoking, character-driven novel (see Mrs. Kimble, Baker Towers, and The Condition) that I love to settle down with and read…imperfect families, societal roles, the conflicting pulls of love and duty, passion and personal responsibility, etc. But I’m also always looking for great audiobook recommendations, so when I saw this rave at You’ve Gotta Read This, I decided to listen to the audio version of Jennifer Haigh’s latest novel Faith (HarperCollins, 2011). A good choice!
Narrated by Therese Plummer, Faith is a novel in the form of a memoir of sorts. In it, Sheila McGann has pieced together stories of people involved in her brother Art Breen’s life, past and present — some remembered, some imagined, some told to her. As in all of Jennifer Haigh’s novels, every character has depth and emotional complexity. A lot of painful feelings (shame, anger, sorrow) and, occasionally, joy or contentment run underneath these characters’ stories; Therese Plummer conveys this very well in her narration.
Sheila’s brother Art (12 years older than Sheila, her mother’s son from a early, annulled marriage) had been a parish priest in the Catholic archdiocese of Boston for many years when the clergy sex abuse scandal broke over the Boston area in 2002 like a storm across Grantham (a fictional working-class, South Shore, harbor town modeled on Hull, Massachusetts), where the Irish-Catholic McGann family lived. When Art himself is accused of molesting a child, the small McGann family (never close) is devastated and divided.
Much about Art’s faith and life in the priesthood remains a mystery to Sheila, a non-practicing Catholic, even after she works out the truth about events leading to his suspension and public disgrace. Sheila McGann loves and respects her brother, although she doesn’t share his faith, but how well does she really know him.
Faith is more about a family in crisis than it is about religion or the Catholic Church. (Although the leaders of the Boston archdiocese and St. John’s Seminary are the closest thing to a villain you will find in this book, they are presented as flawed individuals within an institution, not as evil pedophiles.) Faith and religion certainly play a role in the novel, but they are presented almost neutrally; no one’s religious faith is belittled or praised. Author Jennifer Haigh conveys sympathy for victims of abuse without demonizing all Catholic priests.
My only quibbles with the audiobook narration are that a couple of local place names were mispronounced and the broad Boston accents on a few of the characters (especially Sheila’s mother) sounded a bit overdone to me. (We don’t really sound like that around heah, do we?) But they are really just quibbles, because, over all, the narration — even of the male voices, which can be difficult for a woman to pull off — was excellent.
Faith is one of the best books I’ve read in 2011, hands down. It’s true, You’ve Gotta Read This!
Other opinions about Faith (all good):
Age 30+: A Lifetime of Books
Bibliophile by the Sea
Devourer of Books
My Books. My Life