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Summer Books

A page-turner about faith

By Michael C. White
Cliff Street Books, 355 pages, $24


Michael C. White’s novel is a page-turner -- even a mystery of sorts. But those expecting a neat Agatha Christie-like revelation of all secrets should look elsewhere. The Blind Side of the Heart is more interested in exploring the nature of loyalty and faith in another human being. As the title suggests, the reader will question how blind that loyalty can be.

The novel’s narrator is Maggie Quinn, an Irish immigrant whose troubled past had led her to alcoholism, prostitution and a suicide attempt. She is rescued by Fr. Jack Devlin, who hires her as his housekeeper at his parish in a small Massachusetts town. She serves him with devotion for 18 years.

Then her world comes apart when Fr. Jack is accused of sexual abuse. Two brothers, now in their 20s, claim they were abused by the priest as altar boys 15 years earlier -- they say their repressed memories of the abuse were retrieved in therapy.

Maggie fiercely believes in Fr. Jack’s innocence. She watches as the initially loyal townspeople turn on the priest, and tells us, “Since all this, the blinders have been removed from my eyes. I’ve come to see this crummy little town for what it is.” An interesting thing for her to say, because the reader, at least, is aware of Maggie’s blinders when it comes to Fr. Jack. As she recalls Fr. Jack’s relations with the boys involved in the case, she inevitably assumes the most innocent explanations for everything he does. But we (and other characters in the book) are able to see alternate meanings -- ones possibly more sinister and more damaging to Fr. Jack’s case.

It’s a delicate balancing act that the book pulls off, because in most cases Maggie’s innocent interpretation is as plausible as the guiltier one. The question of Fr. Jack’s guilt or innocence is kept ambiguous, compelling the reader to puzzle over every little bit of evidence. Maggie paints a picture of a kind, selfless priest, long loved by the community -- with the exception of a cadre of spiteful conservatives who object to his support for women’s ordination and gay rights. Fr. Jack’s accusers are rather shady characters, and of course the defense lawyer produces a psychologist to discount the validity of retrieved memories. On the flip side, as much as we sympathize with Maggie, her bouts with drinking make her a less than reliable witness.

It’s not until Fr. Jack is also accused of murder that Maggie begins to question her faith in him. She becomes increasingly torn, still believing in Fr. Jack’s essential goodness, but riddled with doubt about the accuracy of her own memories. Her attempts to reconstruct what happened the night of the murder more than 10 years ago are in a way her own foray into retrieved memories, as she tries to discern if she can testify on Fr. Jack’s behalf with a clear conscience.

Fr. Jack himself is not so vivid to the reader as Maggie is. He is entirely seen through her eyes, and because of that, if he sometimes comes off as too good to be true, it rightly reveals more about Maggie than the priest. He remains an enigma, to her and to us.

The book’s one flaw is a resolution that seems a bit too convenient, rather than springing naturally from the course of events. Nevertheless, the reader comes to care greatly about Maggie’s struggle to come to some peace with herself and with Fr. Jack. You may or may not agree with the conclusion she eventually reaches, but her journey makes for a compelling read.

Teresa Malcolm is NCR’s assistant news editor. Her e-mail address is tmalcolm@natcath.org

National Catholic Reporter, May 5, 2000