Tuesday, September 7, 2010

The Bishop Man

As I am challenging myself this year to read books of many different topics and ideas, I was drawn to this weeks books, This Bishop's Man, for it reveals a topic I am not altogether familiar with. Written by investigative journalist, Linden MacIntyre, and winner of the 2009 Scotiabank Giller Prize, this is an unforgettable novel, a searing indictment of the Catholic church, and complex character study of a deeply conflicted man at the precipice of his life. Above all, it's a great read – a page-turner which renders existential questions about personal responsibility into fodder fit for a thriller, and which takes language and form seriously.

Father Duncan MacAskill known to fellow priests as the "Exorcist", plays a special and notorious role as clean-up man for the Bishop of Antigonish, as he has a talent for coolly reassigning deviant priests to protect the church's various infallible positions, while ensuring minimal fuss from victims and their families. It has been a lonely vocation, but MacAskill is generally satisfied that his work is a necessary defense of the church. All this changes however, when lawyers and a policeman snoop too close for the bishop's comfort, and MacAskill is assigned a parish in the remote Cape Breton community of Creignish, his hometown, and told to wait it out. While wrestling with his own demons, MacAskill encounters a troubled young man who appears to be the victim of a notorious priest. Finding it hard to disengage as he becomes obsessed with his own chance connections to the tragedy – his role in exiling the priest, his familial ties to the victim and his affiliations with the church – he is determined to help this man, regardless of the consequences for the church, and his subsequent investigation takes him on a sordid and surprising path. As a native Cape Bretoner himself, MacIntyre brings the region and its residents vividly to life, while the book aches with details that are both rational and emotional.

Returning home is a rich theme for fiction and is always somehow more rich when it concerns places such as Nova Scotia and Cape Breton Island, where the intricacies of family trees really do matter. MacAskill not only becomes reacquainted with the countryside of his youth, but discovers that he is related to almost everyone there, which makes impartiality towards his parishioners virtually impossible. Throughout the chapters, we learn that MacAskill struggles with many things, including an abusive father, loneliness, his own vicarious liability, and alcoholism. “They say drinking alone is a bad sign. But what if you’re always alone? What if solitude is the norm?” But despite his own celibacy and sobriety issues, MacAskill is the closest thing to a hero within the pages of this novel.

“The future has no substance until it turns the corner into history.”  

The Bishop’s Man is a story told in spirals, as we twist and turn through past and present fluidly, giving us a clearer picture of the events that can become cloudy through space and time. I found this style intriguing, but also confusing at times, as there was nothing as far as change in style or tense to determine exactly what state of time was being narrated. However, by the end of the final pages, all of MacAskill's stories and memories wove to a combined conclusion. I think that overall, the narrative was trying to reproduce someone remembering, and maybe that's why it's not quite in chronological order; certain events stand out more than others or float to the surface faster than others in real memory.

A brave novel, conceived and written with impressive delicacy and understanding. Despite being a work of fiction, The Bishop’s Man has the ring of truth, as MacIntyre writes with great authority. The past few decades have seen a stream of stories about church sex abuse scandals in Canada, the U.S., and Ireland, but instead of writing a novel to showcase those issues, MacIntyre uses those scandals as a springboard to analyze other, perhaps deeper issues. Though the sexual abuse is a central theme, it is not the center of the story, Father MacAskill is. It’s his life we’re looking at, his struggles, his character. The other issues are there, and dealt with with care, but this is not MacIntyre building a prop character in order to sermonize. Father MacAskill, with all of his hope and melancholy, remains ambiguous to us as well as to himself, allowing us to delve into the issues ourselves.

This book does not condemn or blame, it simply acknowledges that ugly things happen and people try to deal with those realities in the best ways they can, not sure if they're right or wrong. Especially when there is no right action. I love that this book just lays it out there so realistically.

It is by way of these happenings that we are presented with brutally honest characters living lives of deceit and despair. These tragically flawed people are human in their beastliness, conflicted, damaged, and eternally struggling to break the vicious cycle of pain and suffering. This book demonstrates the power of subtlety. Nothing is overt, everything is implicit. It's so much more reflective of life -- how often do we name horrors, but instead we speak in code and leave ugliness unspoken, partly as a way of dealing with it?

“The bay is flat, endless pewter beneath the rising moon.” Amidst the madness and injustice, we pause to take in the haunting and beautiful descriptions of small towns, where you can hear the fiddle and smell the sea salt lifting off the page. MacIntyre has proven to be an adoring poet in his love of the East coast and of the Gaelic and English languages. His words are profound and emotive, and I look forward to picking up his other novels in the hopes of more of the same.

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