FAITH by Jennifer Haigh

One of my favorite authors that I discovered since launching this blog is Jennifer Haigh. I’ve reviewed her first three novels, Mrs. Kimble, The Condition, and Baker Towers, and I loved each one. Haigh is a master storyteller – her books are perfectly paced, her characters developed with precision and consistency. I don’t think I’ve ever read a line in a Haigh novel that didn’t ring true, that didn’t seem perfectly in place with the rest of the book.

Last May, I learned that Haigh had a new novel coming out – Faith – and I angled for a review copy, which I was generously provided by HarperCollins. The subject matter – priests and child molestation and family secrets and coverups – didn’t appeal to me off the bat. I think I feared that the book would be overly religious, or just unpleasant. I read the first chapter and then I put the book down and never picked it up again. It pained me – this Jennifer Haigh novel sitting in my room that I hadn’t clicked with – how was that possible?

I finally decided to pick Faith up again about two weeks ago, and ended up listening to it mostly on audio. I’m so glad I did. Faith is a tautly written story about a Catholic family in Boston. The oldest son, Arthur, is a priest who has been accused of molesting a 7 year-old boy. His mother, Mary, is a devout Catholic who refuses to believe the accusation. His siblings, Sheila and Mike, grapple with the accusation, with Sheila (mostly) standing by her brother and Mike, the father of three young sons himself, immediately shunning his brother while finding the need to uncover the truth himself.

Sheila narrates the novel, but with her limited knowledge of what actually happened, it unfolds like a mystery as she unravels the events leading up to the accusation and relays what she learned, and when she learned it.

What I liked about Faith is that none of these characters was predictable or one-dimensional. In the end, they were each flawed in his or her own way, but Haigh’s empathy toward each one made them sympathetic and totally realistic. As a reader, I could understand their motivations; what seemed unforgivable in one chapter made perfect sense in a later chapter. The book definitely explores faith – not just the religious type, but the faith we put in our loved ones to do the right thing, and what happens when that faith is shaken to its core. How strongly can faith withstand what appears to be controversial evidence? As Sheila says halfway through the book, “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.”

There is a fair amount of religion in here, but most of it is in the context of setting the scene for what Arthur’s life as a priest was like. The book has a somewhat slow start and gets a little drowned in the Catholicism at first, which, in retrospect, is what prompted me to put the book down. But that early foundation gives way to a suspenseful story that is beautifully told in Haigh’s usual style. I think that of her four novels, this is the weakest- it gets a little repetitive at times, and there is almost too much foreshadowing for my taste (I like to be surprised). But at her weakest, Haigh is still a master, and Faith was a very good read.

I highly recommend Faith. The audio version is also very good. The narrator, Therese Plummer, has a perfect Boston accent, and she vividly brought Faith‘s characters, male and female, to life.  (She lives in NY, it turns out – I wonder if she grew up in Boston?) The audiobook forced me to ingest this novel more slowly than if I had read it, prolonging the pleasure of experiencing the book. By the end, however, I had to switch to the paper version just because I wanted to finish more quickly and find out what happened. Also, while I read the hardcover, Faith is now out in paperback.