I really disliked this book. It surprised me how much I disliked this book. And then it surprised me to remember that this book is a Giller prize winner*, an award that is highly respected within Canada. I’m not surprised that a book I don’t like won the Giller prize because literary enjoyment can be subjective and tastes differ and that’s fine. I’m surprised that this book won the Giller prize because I don’t think it’s well written.
There’s so much potential here in style and content but it never gets anywhere close to what it could and should be. The story jumps between times without warning, from one paragraph to the next, with seemingly no attempt to distinguish when or even where we are. There were multiple times while reading that I had to go back to re-read and try and figure out who was present and whether or not what was happening was occurring in the book’s present timeline or was past. I think jumps through time can be used effectively in novels and I’ve seen it done beautifully. It’s not done well here. Over and over again, these jumps took me out of the story and simply served to frustrate me.
The other big frustration was how little is stated in the novel. There’s subtlety and then there’s keeping secrets from the reader for no purpose. The novel is told in first person narration by Father Duncan and yet so much is withheld from us. If MacIntyre wished to keep the reader in the dark about so many things (everything, really, from Father Duncan’s childhood to his friendships in Honduras to everything currently happening in the novel beyond Father Duncan sitting around and drinking too much), a third person narrator probably would have been better. When a first person narrator continuously alludes to secrets that are crucial to the plot and yet never elaborates on them (even at the very end of the book!) you have to wonder why they’re even telling this story at all. There was so much of that, “in that place that I don’t want to name” or “at that time that I don’t want to talk about with the person I don’t want to remember”. Fine, don’t talk about it, but you were the one who brought it up, Father!
Added to these issues of style and narration, I also had a pretty big problem with the content. The story is set in the mid-1990s, amidst scandals and accusations of abuses in the Catholic church, specifically priests towards young boys. I think fiction can be a really powerful way to address and discuss real life, horrific issues, such as this, and I think this is a horrible part of church history that should be addressed and discussed. Father Duncan is the Bishop’s errand boy, in many ways, sent out over and over again to deal with “wayward” priests. To deal with them silently before the public, and especially the media, catch wind. It’s certainly an interesting plot and the potential for Duncan’s growing inner conflict is obvious. My problem was that there was one major area of inner conflict that MacIntyre never addresses and that is the inner spiritual conflict. It’s a pretty big gap when you consider that the main character is a man who has been a Catholic priest for more than twenty years. Over and over again I found myself thinking, “How on earth can you write a novel about a Catholic priest and never have him consider any spiritual issues?” We never see Father Duncan go to confession or pray or read his Bible. Through all the turmoil he goes through and feels (and has felt in the past), he never even seems to consider turning to God. If his growing distance from God was a part of the story, I could understand that, but it’s never addressed. It’s as if MacIntyre never considered that a priest might spend time considering spiritual matters. Or that a priest without God in his life would be a very lost man indeed. I don’t personally know any Catholic priests but I do know a number of pastors and ministers and people who work in Christian ministry and praying and reading the Bible is pretty much the first step for them in any decision making process and in any difficult time. And if it isn’t, that’s a big deal in their lives too. You can’t write a book about the church and then ignore the actual Church part of it. Or, as MacIntyre demonstrates, you can, but you really shouldn’t.