The Bishop's Man by Linden MacIntyre

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The Bishop's Man by Linden MacIntyre

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Category: Literary Fiction
Rating: 5/5
Reviewer: Lesley Mason
Reviewed by Lesley Mason
Summary: An unsentimental exposition of the Catholic scandal told with the power of a thriller and a sensitivity of touch that should make all sides pause for thought. Deserving winner of the 2009 Giller Prize.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 416 Date: March 2011
Publisher: Jonathan Cape Ltd
ISBN: 978-0224089722

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Duncan MacAskill (he eschews the title Father whenever he can get away with it) is ostensibly dean of a Catholic university in Nova Scotia. It's a job he enjoys. Approaching fifty years of age, he is, in general, happy with his life. But the Catholic Church is strong on history and MacAskill cannot escape his own. The son of a bastard father and a foreign mother, he was lucky even to be able to follow his vocation and enter the church at all. For most of his career he has been "The Bishop's Man".

In strict ecclesiastical context, the term refers to the position of vicar general or the equivalent, a post whose holder serves as principle deputy to the diocesan bishop in matters of administrative authority. In the case of Father MacAskill, it might imply a more general sense of 'ownership' by the higher authority of the lowly priest; or alternatively, looked at from the other side, a sense of loyalty on the part of the priest for the bishop.

Duality of view is the whole premise of the novel.

Having got into the Church MacAskill retained his own personal sense of right and wrong, and very quickly found himself on the edge of a potential scandal because of what he had seen; or at least because of what he 'thought he had seen'. The Bishop took the politically sensible course of action and removed him from the scene. He was dispatched on a mission to the (in another sense) politically unstable outpost of Honduras. This was in the 1970s and there MacAskill was to face his own temptations, his own potentiality for sin and scandal, and above all, there his world-view was cemented forever.

Equally quickly we learn that MacAskill has personal and family ties to Cape Breton. He is also vaguely familiar on the island from occasional stand-in's for Father Mullins, priest-in-charge of one of the parishes.

It is just after one such visit that he is called again to see the Bishop. Talk of former "clients" makes our man nervous that he is about to be recalled to his old profession. On the contrary, however, the Bishop sees the best course of action in this case as being to take him out of the equation altogether. He is dispatched back to the island to take on a parish of his own: the remote Creignish, close to where he grew up and the people of his childhood still linger.

Reluctant though he is to go, and whatever the Bishop has in mind, both are mistaken in thinking that the priest is being edged into solitudinous retirement. The past doesn't slumber so much as lie in a fitful half-sleep ready to be awakened by a word or a deed or the return of a face.

The Catholic Church has been having to do a lot of "facing the past" of late. The original publication of The Bishop's Man coincided with a $15m settlement in a sex abuse claims case in the Antigonish diocese in Nova Scotia. Whilst the events depicted in the book are entirely fictional, the author is on record of having said that an awful lot of the factual situations I've been involved with just scream out for creative elaboration.

Such a wonderful expression that. To me it says (and this is reinforced by so much that we have heard in the courts, in the media, in personal testimonies) that "THIS did NOT happen"… "but a great deal very much like it certainly did". It suggests that we cannot be sure that it does not still.

Taking on such a topic at such a time risks being one-sided and producing a polemic focussed on a single experience. MacIntyre deftly avoids that by making the semi-independent priest the main protagonist. This gives him scope to present all sides of the arguments. The self-defending culprits, the institutional Church view, the ambivalent personal assessments of an insider investigator, balanced against the confusion and pain of the victims, and the total non-comprehension of their families.

It is a surprisingly unsentimental exposition for all it covers a breadth of experience of loss, loneliness, guilt (that paean of the Catholic tenet) and its surprising absence in the quarters it belongs, and the absolutism of true faith (which guards against neither loss nor loneliness nor guilt nor its absence).

Rooted in the extreme isolation of a rural backwater, even by local standards, of a Nova Scotian island community, it brings a cultural dimension to thought processes and family ties that doesn't exist with the same intensity in more urban settings. We know that the crimes of the past weren't restricted to such communities, but the question is raised whether the Church realises just how far society has moved on while it was fighting on barricades long since circumvented. That the administrative structures simply didn't keep up might just be why the history eventually came to such public scrutiny.

In plot MacIntyre gives us a detective thriller as he searches for the truth of past events and how or why they should lead a man to kill himself now. Harsh truths are alluded to, not extrapolated. His characters are a fabulous mix of the rural eccentrics and city intellectuals and church politicos. Most of them hark back to their pre-colonial heritage extolling their Gaelic ancestry. Is this a neat way of tying the scandal to old Europe as well as the new countries? Certainly the Scots and Irish lilt can be read into many of the conversations. Faith is cross-cutting from those who believe with the innocent trust of a child, through the qualified acceptance of the pragmatists, to total rejection. The setting, geographical, historical and political, is handled with a subtlety that allows the haunting backdrop to echo through every scene, with never a phrase that put it there remaining in the mind.

It is a powerful book that remains eminently readable, even enjoyable. Can one ascribe 'beauty' to a book on such a subject? If Keats was right in his truth beauty assertion, then yes, and here the beauty exceeds the mere truth of the story.

And while we all know not to judge a book by its cover, on this occasion I would like to applaud Vintage for a perfectly judged cover photograph: dark, brooding, personal, with the setting quietly screaming from the composition. Superb.

It's early in the year, but I suspect this will make my top 10 for 2011.

I'd like to thank the publishers for sending a copy to The Bookbag.

Further reading suggestion: for other stories with similar themes try Bad Girl Magdalene by Jonathan Gash or Christine Falls by Benjamin Black.

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