Father Duncan MacAskill has spent most of his priesthood as the ́Exorcist ́ - a man employed by his bishop to tidy away potential scandal. While sent by his bishop to a contry parish to avoid a big media scandal, Duncan must confront his consequences of past cover-ups and the suppression of his own human needs.
I recently finished reading The Bishop's Man by Canadian author and well known broadcast journalist Linden MacIntyre. What can I say but that the book was profoundly beautiful in its descriptiveness and unique 'Cape Breton' voice, but also proundly disturbing and melancholy because of the subject matter. It takes place in the 90's when the news of the ongoing scandals within the Catholic church first begin to surface. It is written from the point of view of Father Duncan MacAskil - the Bishop's go-to man for covering up the sexual misdemeanors of fellow priests. It is raw, emotional and complex in it's treatment of the topic - definitely no pat answers here! Through multiple flashbacks which finally come together, we see into Father Duncan's troubled mind and past. It emanates from a place of truth and authenticity, and although there is a sense of satisfying closure at the end of the book, we are still left feeling reflective..
This is not an easy read, but it is a book that spurs you on to its conclusion. I recommend this book to anyone looking for something deeper than the typical feel good story.
Father Duncan MacAskill is approaching the age of fifty, a time when one starts to take stock of one’s life and wonder about choices that one made. He grew up on Cape Breton Island back when it was an island before the Causeway was built that connected it with Nova Scotia. His mother died when he was young and his father was suffering from what we would call PTSD from World War II. Throughout his career as a priest he has been tasked by the Bishop to help other priests who have transgressed. Usually that means moving the priest to a location where their history is unknown and they will fade from the public eye. On one occasion when the red-haired priest thought another priest had transgressed and he brought it to the attention of the Bishop he was the person who was moved away. Sent to Honduras he experienced his own fallibility and he has nightmares about it still. At this late stage in his life he is sent by the Bishop to become a parish priest back on Cape Breton, close to where he grew up. There he has to face his own demons as well as other people’s.
Suicide and sexual abuse reoccur throughout this book. So this is certainly not a light read but the writing is of such a caliber that one ponders the deeper meaning rather than feeling repugnance. There are also descriptions of the countryside that are absolutely lovely. At one point Duncan is near the Ontario Escarpment which he describes as follows:
There is a light fog that gives the escarpment the appearance of a medieval hillside village. I can imagine the shapes of parapets and battlements. Tall trees, sculpted by the moving mists to look like ghostly towers.
Finally I can’t leave this review without praising the cover which shows a man in a long dark coat at the seashore at sunrise (I presume from the pink hue to the sky). The horizon line is slanted down from left to right. When I first noticed the slant I thought it was odd but after reading the book I think it is meant to convey how Duncan feels off-balance throughout the book. The cover was designed by CS Richardson who has done some of the best cover designs for Canadian books. I think there should be a GG Literature award for book design so Richardson would get the recognition he deserves.
"It's always a mistake to identify too closely with any institution. That might have been our downfall. Losing ourselves inside the vastness of the Holy Mother Church, forgetting who we are as people ... Institutions are amoral ... We should never lose touch with our individuality. Once you lose that, you lose touch with the basics. The right and the wrong of things. I have to think we're conditioned to the the right thing, as people. But not as institutions. There's no morality in an institution. It's just a thing."
Duncan's boss, "Bishop Alex" - a literary villain who will be remembered, I'm sure - has obviously lost sight of "the right and wrong." He is portrayed as the ultimate company man who will stoop as low as necessary to protect that amoral institution that he works for - the Church.
Much of the story in The Bishop's Man centers around the tragic suicide of a troubled young man in the remote Cape Breton parish where Duncan has been sent by the bishop to keep him out of the public eye during the sexual abuse investigations. The priest who delivers the homily at the funeral says this of the boy's short suicide note -
"I'm told he wrote 'There is no future.' Think of that ... Think of where we have arrived as a society when those who shape the circumstances of our lives and communities can leave our young, the very embodiment of our collective fate, in such a state. There is NO future?"
A bit of existential angst, you might think, but the fact is, the suicide has more to do with things like homophobia in a small town, as well as the ongoing Church sexual abuse stuff. There is also much to ponder here about the importance of father-son relationships, as in when Duncan comments on missed opportunities at better understanding his own war-damaged father, saying, "When you're young, you aren't usually interested." And the character he says this to, the suicide's father, replies: "Well, isn't that the way. The things I'd like to ask the old man now. When it's too late."
Much is made of the damage done by the insularity, isolation and loneliness imposed by vows of priestly celibacy, vows sometimes broken and then agonized over for years to come, as evidenced in Duncan's journal entries from his 70s soujourn in a Central American mission, where he'd been sent to cool his heels after making his own accusations of sexual abuse by a priest who happened to be a friend of the Bishop. These journals are interspersed throughout the narrative and elipitically tell a tale of a love affair, as well as a close friendship with another young charismatic priest he knew there.
There are scenes of incipient alcoholism, depression, crushing guilt and even suicidal impulses which increase to a point where the narrator is sent away to Braecrest, a Church "rehab center," to get dried out and counseled. If there is a guardian angel in the story, it is probably personified in Duncan's roommate there, a "good thief" priest named aptly - no, not Dismas, but Jude, who if I remember my saints correctly, was the patron of lost causes.
There is so much to think about in this book. I could go on, but I won't. This has been a good year for me, as far as discovering numerous books of high quality. But this book, The Bishop's Man, is one that will resonate with me for a long, long time. It was a number one bestseller in Canada last year. Here in the U.S. we rarely get bestsellers of this quality. Almost makes a booklover want to move to Canada. I do plan to read MacIntyre's other two books. Maybe that will have to do for now.
had enough secrets in his life when he was a child, and as he grew more and more were added, especially when he becomes his Bishop's Man-the man sent to deal with the fallout from wayward and straying priests. All the secrets take a terrible hold of Father Duncan until a catastrophic event at the end of the book which forces him to make a final decision as to how he is going to live the remainder of his life. Yes, it is a disturbing and troubling book to read, but one that is well worth the trouble. This is a book that will weather the ages, I think. The topic is one that is for these times for sure.
The bottom line for this Catholic reader though, is that the novel is written from the outside. The "Bishop's Man" at the centre of the novel is not portrayed as having any kind of active faith life. My best guess is that this is not so much an artistic choice as a lacunae in the author's own experience of the world. A single reference to the comforting feel of the rosary beads in the priest's hands does not a portrait of a life of faith make.(Nor even a crisis in faith which I suspect would be more to the author's interest).
Father MacAskill quickly finds the complacency he shows at the beginning to be misplaced as, not long after he moves to his first actual parish, a young boy he befriends there kills himself. As a result, MacAskill finds himself facing his own demons as well as those of the church he’s served so assiduously. His time as, in essence, inquisitor for the Bishop he admires, the period he spent in Honduras, his childhood in Cape Breton, all carry their attendant pain that he’s avoided dealing with until now.
Despite my dislike of MacAskill’s prissiness, this is muscular writing, born of a tradition of novel writing which I associate with men of a certain generation (Robertson Davies comes to mind). It’s firmly rooted, with an introspection and clarity that roots it in the real world, even when it deals with evasions and avoidances of the truth. The Bishop’s Man does what Annabel fails to: it’s a challenging and serious book, painful at times, but it’s one I’ll be glad to return to.
It’s a very good book. Nicely balanced in its search for truth and in dealing with complicated victim-abuser issues. Sparse in words, but that’s how the communication among people who do not want to say anything looks like. It tells a good and entirely believable story that keeps one in suspense until the very end.
This book does not condemn or blame, it simply acknowledges that ugly things happen(ed) 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.
Not challenging to read in terms of basic writing style, but certainly the implied story requires a discerning reader, and the subject matter (when you do read between the lines) is heavy. A worthy winner of the 2009 Giller Prize.
Review: This is the third book in my goal to read the entire 2009 Giller shortlist. I meant to find out who won only after I’ve read all five, but I accidentally clicked on a spoiler, so now I know. This is the book that won. It definitely coloured my experience reading it, but now that I have (read it, that is), I see why The Bishop’s Man took home the prize.
Firstly, it’s very topical. Deviant Catholic priests have been hot topics in the news lately, so it was interesting reading about the subject in fiction, and such good fiction too. MacIntyre’s writing is world-weary to match his world-weary protagonist, but it is also tender and full of graceful sadness. Father Duncan’s voice rings clearly throughout the entire novel, and MacIntyre really gets you into his head as he exposes priests while having lapses of his own — MacIntyre’s priests are human too. As I watched Father Duncan get more and more out of control, sliding into drinking problems, I felt the suffocation of his life and the difficulties of his calling.
There is a lot unsaid in the book. There are a few pieces of the puzzle that don’t make sense until the very end. Even then there is still more. Father Duncan’s longing for Jacintha is never resolved, nor should it be. She hangs like a ghost in his life, and I was moved by his feelings for her. I was moved by this novel in general. I don’t think it’s quite as good as The Disappeared but it’s running a close second.
Although I do have to say: for a novel about Catholic priests, there isn’t a lot of God or religion involved. Whether or not this is a good thing depends on the reader. I would have liked to have seen more of Father Duncan’s relationship to his religion. Not so much that it dominates the novel — I think MacIntyre is on the right track when he focuses more on the institution than the faith — but a bit more maybe.
Conclusion: A glimpse into the complicated psyche of a struggling Catholic priest.
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. 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.
At times my anger was palpable as the Bishop insisted on covering up the harsh realities of the evil-doings administered by the hands of his precious and misunderstood brotherhood, where ‘victims’ were only the creations of over-active imaginations and troubled youth.
On more than one occasion I wrestled with my understanding of good and evil, and what faith means in today’s modern world. I am of the mind that Catholicism and its primitive structures are in need of a revamp in respect to how the world has changed, and what we’ve learned about humanity along the way. For the sake of the Catholics out there, I pray that they will make the changes that are needed to gain back so many members that they have lost due to their closed-mindedness and denial. As naïve as some may consider it, I will always believe that faith is an important and necessary part of a happy, moral and fulfilling life.
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. Linden 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.
Just a couple of his affecting offerings…
“The future has no substance until it turns the corner into history.”
“The bay is flat, endless pewter beneath the rising moon.”
The book was published in the midst of the ongoing sexual abuse scandal case in the Antigonish Nova Scotia diocese, which eventually resulted in a $15 million settlement by the Catholic Church.
I found the back-and-forth-in-time format a little distracting but this is a sickening and powerful story.
Father MacAskill is the bishop's man: the priest who arranges for abusive colleagues to be moved from one parish to another. Over time, he comes to doubt the morality of the role he's played. Through this novel, we mainly see the portrait of a struggling man.
Set against the real-world stories of abuse by Catholic priests, and the sad legacy of Canada's Indian residential schools, the novel is so very powerful without being graphic or self-righteous. A deeply moving story on so many levels -- I think I will hold on to it to re-read.
As the press closes in on some of his activities related to putting out fires, his bishop decides to hide him as a parish priest in a parish close to where he grew up. This leads to more complications because of his mysterious parents and the suicides of young people from the town. His involvement with another woman also creates pressure all of which leads to a major drinking problem.
There are many discussions among the priests about their faith and the loneliness of the job and why men choose to be priests. By the time I was half way through, I could not put it down. Highly readable.
The novel is set in the late 1990s of Cape Breton, at a time when the Catholic Church is under siege both from within and without, and when Canada’s fisheries are collapsing. Come into this Father Duncan MacAskill, known among his colleagues as the ‘Exorcist’, the damage-control man for the Bishop of Antigonish.
Duncan himself is in need of damage control, burned out, over-stressed, searching for his own relevance in a Church with diminishing relevance. There is very much the feeling of shadows in this novel, of whispers in the wind, of the reluctance to acknowledge hurt, tragedy, and responsibility. I know of many editors, even writers, who would have condemned the first half of this novel as too introspective, too slow, that the character of Duncan MacAskill is too remote.
They would be wrong. As was I. What Linden MacIntyre creates with this cool, distant approach is a fragile foundation he then, in the last few chapters, ruthlessly, and yet with grace, rips out from under the reader’s metaphorical feet and leaves you numb, in my case weeping. In a story so reserved in its emotional impact, it creates a thunderous impact in the end so that the only word left to describe this novel is memorable.