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.

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24 Comments

  • March 23, 2012 - 9:25 am | Permalink

    I really liked this one as well. I’ve read only one other Haigh novel, Mrs. Kimble, which I thought was fantastic. I have her other two on my shelves just waiting for me. I think you perfectly captured what is so great about this novel while also giving balanced feedback about some aspects of it that weren’t the best of Haigh’s work.

    • March 23, 2012 - 10:44 am | Permalink

      You’re lucky that you still have the other two ahead of you! Thanks for the comment. :)

  • March 23, 2012 - 10:38 am | Permalink

    Hmmm…if I haven’t read any of Haigh’s works yet, which one should I start with?

    • March 23, 2012 - 10:43 am | Permalink

      I’d start with Mrs. Kimble or The Condition. I read The Condition first and adored it. It’s longer than the others, but sooo good. Mrs. Kimble is a little darker, but also a great read. If you like those, then move on to Baker Towers and Faith. Honestly, they are all really good!

  • Susan
    March 23, 2012 - 11:13 am | Permalink

    I read this a few weeks ago and breezed through it. I did find the foreshadowing you mentioned to be intrusive; having the sister narrate kept the story at arm’s length for me, and at times seemed like an odd choice. But, overall, I enjoyed the novel. I’m seeing Haigh speak in early May and have now read Faith and Mrs. Kimble as prep!

    • March 23, 2012 - 11:22 am | Permalink

      I didn’t mind the sister narrating. Here’s what Haigh said about it in an interview on Amazon (I found it in the hardcover edition):

      Q: Faith is told from the point of view of Art’s sister, Sheila. It’s a surprising choice, since she doesn’t actually witness the events in question. Why did you approach the story in this way?

      Haigh: It took me a while to figure out how to tell this story. When I read account of priests who’d been accused of sexual abuse, I was struck by the difficulty of getting to the bottom of such cases. Often it comes down to one person’s word against another: only two people know for sure what happened, and sometimes the child is too traumatized to remember it clearly. As Sheila tells the story, she’s struggling to arrive at the truth, to find out whether her brother could possibly have done the things he’s accused of, to imagine what he thought and felt, to get inside his head. In a sense, it mirrors the way all novels are written. To me, writing is an exercise in empathy.

  • March 23, 2012 - 12:36 pm | Permalink

    I too am a huge fan of Jennifer Haigh and count her first three novels among my favorite novels of all time. I too considered this her weakest one, though Jennifer Haigh’s “weakest” still makes for a compelling read. My overall feeling was that she put the story and the mystery ahead of the art. I felt like she was so determined to understand and tell how this kind of thing can happen that she put her pursuit of the plot above the need for fine craft, whereas in her other three novels, the plots were important but the narrative and characters were even more important. And I actually felt that the sense of unlocking a mystery — what you (Gayle) describe as “what seemed unforgivable in one chapter made perfect sense in a later chapter” — seemed a little heavy-handed at times: particularly near the very end, there were too many “A-ha! So THAT’S why she/he did that!” moments. Again, this refers back to my sense that the plot was more important to Haigh than the art of story-telling. I also didn’t understand the slightly odd narrative conceit by which Sheila stood at a distance with a “Reader, this is what I know” kind of voice. Was it supposed to evoke a Catholic confessional? Let me just say again that I will read anything by Jennifer Haigh and I have recommended this novel many times since reading it. I just thought it was more flawed than her other, nearly perfect novels.

  • March 23, 2012 - 12:42 pm | Permalink

    Nancy, check out my response to the comment above yours… I cut and pasted a response from JH from Amazon that answers the Sheila narration question. And I agree with you about the “aha” moments – those are much more subtle in her other books.

  • Dick Shohet
    March 23, 2012 - 1:30 pm | Permalink

    Gayle is right on target with her observations, particularly in quoting Sheila’s opinion that “faith” is dynamic, a verb–something we do–and not static, a noun–something we have or don’t have. Sheila’s being the narrator really works for me because her voice is authentic. She knows only a tad more than the reader knows as she progresses, bit by bit.

    An interesting comparison with Arthur’s “ultimate” relationship with Kath may be found in Justin’s relationship with Mary Ann in Wayne Harrison’s short story, Least Resistance. Both have deeply moral implications and both helpfully inform the respective endings of both tales. Neither ending is conclusive. Both are satisfying. Just like life.

    • March 23, 2012 - 1:51 pm | Permalink

      Thanks so much for the comment. Glad that that quote resonated with you as it did with me; seemed to sum up the whole book.

  • March 23, 2012 - 1:43 pm | Permalink

    I read this book last year, knowing how much you loved the author. I thought it was fabulous, and if this is the weakest of her books, then bring the rest of them on. The Condition seems like it will be way too heavy but maybe I will try Mrs. Kimble first.

    • March 23, 2012 - 1:50 pm | Permalink

      Nicole – on the contrary, I think that The Condition is the lightest of the four. It’s the longest and perhaps the meatiest, but it’s not that heavy. Great family drama. Mrs. Kimble is rather dark.

      • March 23, 2012 - 2:19 pm | Permalink

        That is good to know. I think I saw the illness involved and didn’t think I could handle reading it. Which would you say has been your favorite of her books?

        • gayle
          March 23, 2012 - 2:20 pm | Permalink

          The illness isn’t lifethreatening, so the book isn’t as heavy as you’re fearing. My order of favorites:

          The Condition
          Mrs Kimble
          Baker Towers
          Faith

  • March 23, 2012 - 2:31 pm | Permalink

    I’ll be reading this book with my book club this summer. It sounds like we’ll have a lot to discuss.

    • gayle
      March 23, 2012 - 2:34 pm | Permalink

      Definitely. Lots of issues in this book!

  • March 24, 2012 - 12:58 pm | Permalink

    I totally agree with you that Ms. Haigh is a master of words! She is one of my very favorite authors and I thought this book was incredibly thought-provoking!

  • March 24, 2012 - 8:00 pm | Permalink

    Faith was one of my favorite reads last year – I really felt a connection to the characters and thought it was a powerful story. I’m glad you decided to read it.

    • gayle
      March 25, 2012 - 4:23 pm | Permalink

      Thanks for the comment! You and I tend to like a lot of the same books. :)

  • Elisabeth
    March 25, 2012 - 9:40 am | Permalink

    I am listening to Baker Towers now and loving it. I am a diehard Haigh fan! I am looking forward to Faith on audio. I love listening to books where the narrator has an accent. Haigh has a knack for slowly drawing you in and then your hooked!

    • gayle
      March 25, 2012 - 4:23 pm | Permalink

      What’s the Baker Towers accent? Totally agree on Haigh and her way of sucking you in. Such a great writer.

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