The Bishop’s Man, this year’s winner of Canada’s prestigious Giller Prize, is the most perfect example I’ve ever read of a novel about an issue that is broad, political, and significant while at the same time being personal, intimate and immediate.
It’s a novel that’s all too timely — though, sadly, one could have said that had it come out at almost anytime in the last 20 years. It will be sadder still if it continues to be timely and relevant in the next twenty years, because The Bishop’s Man deals with the ongoing scandal of sexual abuse by priests in the Roman Catholic Church.
That’s the “big” story, the hugely complex and controversial issue that drives the book. But the small story, the heart of the novel, is the story of one man, FAther Duncan MacAskill, who finds himself lost at midlife, seeking meaning and connection. And that is, perhaps, the most universal story of all.
Father Duncan has spent much of his career as the bishop’s fix-it man, the man who is sent in to deal with (and cover up) scandals, to whisk troublesome priests away quietly to rehab or to another diocese without bringing additional shame upon the good name of the Church. At the age of fifty he experiences a sudden career shift when he is sent to be a parish priest — something he has never done before — in a tiny Cape Breton village in the same area where he grew up. The troubled family life and network of relationships that he escaped by entering the priesthood rises up to claim him, as do his memories of the years in between.
This is a completely engaging and beautifully written story of how one of the most explosive and controversial issues of our day plays out in the lives of a handful of people who are touched by these abuses and tragedies. It’s not a particularly easy book (although, since the focus is not on sexual abuse itself but on the politics that surround it, there is nothing graphic or overtly disturbing here). The ending leaves many things unresolved, many possibilities open, with the reader left to draw his or her own conclusions about where Duncan MacAskill’s confused search for truth in the middle of a life of ambiguities might lead him.