A quick and gut-reaction 5 stars. It took me at least half-way through to figure out what he was doing, and to shed the preconceptions of what I thought this book was going to be. The last 10050 pages are masterful.
This turned out to be a different novel, a better novel, than the one I was expecting. I know Linden MacIntyre as a journalist, and knew this was about the sex abuse scandals in the Catholic Church. So I expected a journalistic exploration of that topic in novel form. Sorry, Mr. MacIntyre; I misunderestimated you.
This is a novel about damaged people, damaged communication, and the personally destructive power of secrets. It's about loneliness and isolation, and what that does to people. (And strangely enough, it's the third novel I've read, three of three in 2011, that touches directly or indirectly on orphan-dom. I don't really know what that means, but I am the granddaughter of an orphan, and my father was powerfully affected by that, so there's definitely something going on here).
This novel is also about coming from a place – metaphorical, physical – that is defined by poverty, trauma and addiction. A place where everyone is related to everyone (who’s yer fadder? or in this case, who's yer mudder?), but there is little intimacy and little meaningful communication or connection between people. There can't be, because there are such huge gaps in self-knowledge and so many secrets.
The poverty is not just because of a changing way of life that leads people "away" (and priests astray) and leaves those left behind with little to hope for. It is a poverty of spirit built from layers of emptiness that have been laid down over generations as each deals with its own secrets, and most die with them unexorcised.
And it's about all kinds of trauma, all kinds of addiction – personal bedevilment that extends far beyond the priesthood. And yes, it's about the sex scandals in the priesthood too. But these are put into a much broader and much more personal context.
It's also about what the priesthood is – why people enter it and how they struggle to define it for themselves. Beyond that, it's about how the scandals personally affect(ed) those of faith: the wrenching conflict between one's faith, one's trust in one man who represents that faith, and the truth.
What it's not is particularly atmospheric of Cape Breton; i.e., the external landscape of the place, although there are lots of descriptions of wind and rain/snow and cold and general bleakness, but these I feel are secondary and irrelevant. There’s a nod to the loss of Gaelic (and it’s important which character retains it, but I won’t spoil that here). I believe the loss of Gaelic is a metaphor for the loss of faith among these Cape Bretoners, whose island became a dumping ground for "bad" priests. The internal landscape of Cape Breton is well-told, although it's not a particularly flattering portrait.
Here's what I liked, loved even: this book didn't rest on pat explanations. It's too simple merely to say that the forced celibacy of the priesthood leads to aberrant sexual behaviour. Or, that damaged people are attracted to the priesthood, at which point they are damaged further. There is nothing particularly anti-Catholic here (at least, as a non-Catholic, I didn't think so; Catholics might disagree). On the contrary, it's a sensitive and searching portrayal of an issue, and the people involved in it, which respects not just the complexity of their faith but also their humanity.
MacIntyre does a great job of what is essentially a character portrait (more than one, in fact) of a flawed and complex human being who happens to be a priest. Father MacAskill starts as a brittle, weak, ineffective priest who knows little of himself or of dealing with the faithful, beyond performing a duty to the Mother Church that implicates him in the scandals. He degenerates from there. As he bottoms out and confronts his own demons, lo and behold – he becomes not only more human, but also a better priest. (And MacIntyre does a 1000 percent better job of that character arc than I just did, which is why he won the Giller, I'd say). :-p
Well. Anyway. MacIntyre’s thesis – if he can be said to have one – is that nothing is as simple as it seems, and that priests go awry, as all humans do, when they deny or repress – or never know – the truth about themselves.
This is also a portrayal of a crisis of faith not in terms of one man's attempt to understand his relationship to God, but to understand his relationship to himself, to his past and to his calling.
One other thing: most of the reviews I've read comment on the disjointed nature of the narrative structure, with its flashbacks and flash-forwards. You need to be patient with this, because while it's disorienting at first, it gets more cohesive as the plot unfolds (and in fact, I believe this is intentional. As Fr. MacAskill becomes whole, the threads of time are tied together, and the links between past, present and future start to make sense. It’s quite clever.)
Concurrent with that, the dialogue is also disorienting at first. Conversation seems to go nowhere, or seems to rely on some kind of implicit but unspoken understanding between characters to which the reader is not privy. People talk, but there are gaps in dialogue (lots unsaid, lots under the surface), and weird stops, starts and jumps to conclusions as jarring as the jumps back and forth in time. As Fr. MacAskill’s and others’ pasts are revealed, true understanding – connection, even intimacy – starts to emerge. And then, sensible dialogue begins. By the last 50 pages, as the timing and the dialogue become whole and rich, this novel starts to feel entirely worthy of the accolades and awards it won (which is to say that I think criticisms of inconsistency, a lack of sure-handedness or trickery with respect to managing the novel's narrative flow or dialogue miss the point).
In the last third of the book, one of its most interesting (at least to me) themes coalesces, as the dialogue – i.e., not what is said but what is not said – changes: secrets prevent communication which prevents intimacy. And that fundamental, very existential aloneness – beyond sexual to an all-encompassing kind of connection to oneself, one's past, one's roots and family, and one's vocation, not to mention to others – is at the root of dysfunction, dread and despair. (There are several interesting references to existentialism, and Fr. MacAskill himself reads Heidegger).
A powerful novel. Maybe not a complete 5, but let it stand for now.