30 May 2010

The Bishop's Man

By Linden MacIntyre
Published by Random House Canada

The Bishop's Man is a novel both engrossing and frustrating. The story is told through Father Duncan MacAskill and centres around his life as the priest who other priests hate to see coming; the priest sent by the bishop to make priests who are caught up in any kind of scandal - sexual or otherwise - disappear. That's the engrossing bit. The frustrating bit is the constant time-shifting MacIntyre employs in order to tell MacAskill's story. It's summer, it's winter, he's old, he's young, he's in Honduras, he's in Toronto, he's in Cape Breton. Enough already.

The book gets off to a slow start and if I hadn't been reading this for a book club, I probably would have stopped a few chapters in. But perseverance pays off. MacAskill's decline into alcoholism and mental despair was exceptionally well-written. In fact, MacIntyre's tone throughout made you feel the isolation of the parish, the sadness of those touched by sexual abuse, and the loneliness of a man who dreams of experiencing life outside the priesthood. MacIntyre stepped away from writing graphic scenes of sexual abuse, and he didn't need to - you hated the perpetrators and felt the pain of the victims anyway.

MacAskill performed his priestly duties for the bishop, but not without questioning the actions of the church and, eventually, himself. There are moments when you despise him, moments when you tolerate him, and moments when you wish he would stop being tormented and find peace.

I liked this book although it left me feeling quite hollow. Whether that was the intention of the author or not was one of the topics covered by the Bool Club (that's not a typo...long story).

Out of the four females involved in today's discussion, I was the only person who liked the book. Booler CB liked it well enough, but I don't think it topped her list of books to recommend to friends; Booler NS didn't like the book; and Booler PC couldn't find it in her heart to even finish it. So, there were some diverse opinions floating around. All agreed, however, on the overall bleakness of the story - setting a novel about sexual abuse, suicide, and religion against a backdrop of dead-of-winter Cape Breton was downright depressing.

The Bishop's Man won the 2009 Giller Prize. While the majority of the Bool Club wouldn't recommend this novel, I do.

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