Scotiabank Giller Prize 2009, Book 2

October 24, 2009 by · 1 Comment 

The Bishop’s Man. Linden MacIntyre; Random House Canada, $32.00 cloth, 410 pp., 978-0-307-3570-9.

n313069Previous Giller wins/noms: None

Other awards: Edna Staebler Award for Creative Non-fiction, Evelyn Richardson Prize for Non-fiction (Causeway: A Passage from Innocence)

CBA Libris Award (The Long Stretch, nominee)

From the publisher: “From an award-winning writer and one of Canada’s foremost broadcast journalists, comes a deeply wise and moving novel that explores the guilty minds and spiritual evasions of Catholic priests.”

From reviews: “Some readers might find MacIntyre’s frequent timeshifting a distraction, but by and large the author handles the various decades of his tale deftly. And as a native Cape Bretoner himself, he brings the region and its residents vividly to life. MacIntyre’s examination of a troubled priest’s life will earn the attention of Catholics and non-Catholics alike.” – Nicholas Pashley, National Post

“In his latest novel, The Bishop’s Man, Linden MacIntyre tackles the disturbing topic of sexual abuse of children, a subject easily given to theses and tirades, lectures and judgments, all thinly veiled as fiction. MacIntyre, his engrossing tale told through the eyes and experiences of Father Duncan MacAskill, sidesteps these pitfalls to deliver a serious examination of the theme with the page-turning energy of a thriller.” – Frank Macdonald, The Globe and Mail

“In Father MacAskill, MacIntyre gives us a Christian anti-hero, a man of faith who is first of all a man, in a story that meshes humour and down-home charm with the raw underbelly of human imperfection.” – Angela Narth, Winnipeg Free Press

My reaction: Father Duncan MacAskill is called names like the Exorcist and the Purificator because of his particular function, which is to make problems disappear. Specifically, Father MacAskill serves at the pleasure of his bishop to relocate priests who have been accused of sexually abusing young boys. But when the bishop learns that “damned insinuating lawyers” have been asking questions about how such matters have been handled and suggesting that MacAskill has been complicit in a cover-up, the bishop decides to get the priest out of the way until matters blow over. So MacAskill is reassigned to the Cape Breton parish of Creignish, a stone’s throw from where he grew up on the Long Stretch Road.

MacIntyre has set himself an undeniably ambitious task. He’s dealing with heavy thematic material, and the collision between MacAskill’s sense of guilt over what he increasingly comes to see as his complicity in the crimes of the church and his fraught personal history in the land of his childhood is borne out over a complex structure that weaves back and forth in time and travels from small-town Cape Breton to Toronto and Honduras.

The best parts of The Bishop’s Man involve MacAskill’s existential crisis, arising from his “instinct for guilt,” whereby he attempts to negotiate a moral path without sacrificing either his fidelity to his church or his essential humanity. In his job, MacAskill has been privy to every manner of rationalization and excuse for morally reprehensible conduct (the bishop resolutely refuses to refer to boys molested at the hands of priests as “victims”), but it is to MacIntyre’s credit that the character himself never loses his essential humanity. MacAskill’s interior monologues are potent and moving:

You want it to be true. You find comfort in the eyes, reassurance from the heavy hand that he has laid upon your shoulder, the sombre voice that speaks of collegiality, of character. He has been a mentor. He has been an exemplar. He is what you, in your pious dreaming, wanted to become. Revered, respected by lay and ministry alike. A priest who is also a Man. And thus you are reassured, all too easily. You agree, eventually: some time away will be restorative. And your bishop is prescient: it was in Honduras that your mission first came into focus; you saw, among the poor, the human fate as our Redeemer saw it, etched in lines upon the faces. I could see my mission in their eyes, the hope I represented. The bishop said I’d see the living faith the way it used to be. And he was absolutely right.

This interior struggle recalls Doestoevsky, and the tension it carries makes portions of The Bishop’s Man read with intensity and a kind of existential terror.

But the book is overlong (at 400 pages, it’s easily the longest of the five Giller shortlisted titles), and the priest’s moral dilemma is so compelling that the more personal sections of the book seem relatively pallid by comparison. The material dealing with Father MacAskill’s sister Effie, his best friend Sextus Gillis, and Sextus’s father, John, was covered in MacIntyre’s first novel, and its recapitulation here is unnecessary and only serves to draw attention away from more dramatically provocative material.

As an existential thriller, The Bishop’s Man works well, but it unfortunately suffers from a bit too much fat on its thematic bones.


One Response to “Scotiabank Giller Prize 2009, Book 2”
  1. Michael Edwards says:

    I gather that the 2009 judges considered a total of 95 books from which they made their long and short lists. How can one find out the full list of 95 titles that they read. It would be interesting to see all the other titles that were submitted and I would very much like to obtain the full list.

    Michael Edwards