Winner: 2009 Scotiabank Giller Prize
Father Duncan MacAskill has a reputation. Used by the local bishop as a clean-up man, he becomes known to fellow priests as the “Exorcist.” Like Harvey Keitel in Pulp Fiction, it is Father Duncan’s job to clean up the mess – only this time it’s other priests who are doing the crimes, and more often than not, their crime is the sexual abuse of children.
When law enforcement and the press start asking questions about a priest Duncan once worked with, the Bishop gets nervous. Duncan is assigned to a parish in the Cape Breton community of Creignish, where he is told to lay low. Easier said than done, considering Duncan grew up in a neighbouring community and is now being pulled into his old life, and forced to deal with old demons.
And what better demon to taunt a priest than a woman. Or two. For a lonely woman in a remote Cape Breton town, not even the priest is off-limits. Not surprisingly, Father Duncan turns to drink.
In an attempt to distract himself, Duncan takes an interest in a troubled young boy, 18-year old Danny MacKay, and discovers that the boy once spent time with an errant priest Duncan had sent to Port Hood to get him out of the way. Faced with isolation, temptation, and the knowledge that his actions may have put his new young friend in danger, Duncan begins to doubt his actions, his vocation and his faith.
Now, my take on this story is strongly coloured by the fact that I also grew up in a neighbouring community, and was closely involved with the church at the time. To really enjoy a book, you have to be able to relate to the characters. This went much further. It was like reading a book where I knew the characters. This could have been me, my family, my siblings or my friends. It was at times rather chilling.
In Father Duncan, MacIntyre has created an unlikely hero. A priest who covers up the sins of others, who drinks to excess, and struggles with his own vow of celibacy. Yet it is precisely because of his flaws that you believe in him. On numerous occasions he almost falls into the clichéd fallen-holy-man role, but always holds on. Sometimes just barely.
That said, while our hero may be a priest, the book is not kind to the church, as can be seen in this short excerpt of a conversation between Father Duncan and the Bishop:
“‘Don’t use that word in this house,’ [the Bishop] shouted.
“‘Victim, for God’s sake. Don’t make me sick. … They’ll get over it. … We can’t let a bunch of misfits and complainers undermine the Sacraments.’”
Lovely. And yet we’ve all seen the story played out in the news.
MacIntyre is a well-known investigative reporter. At times it felt like this book was a way to write about the things we all knew about the church’s sex abuse scandal, but could not prove. The conversations that could never be recorded. The bits that would never make it to television. At times the plot felt a bit contrived or formulaic (the alcoholic father, troubled youth, everyone a potential victim) yet the strength of the characters and the underlying themes of regret and redemption carry the story through the minor glitches.
If you haven’t figured it out already, I loved this book, and highly recommend it.