The Bishop’s Man
Cover image and synopsis from Goodreads:
The year is 1993 and Father Duncan MacAskill stands at a small Cape Breton fishing harbour a few miles from where he grew up. Enjoying the timeless sight of a father and son piloting a boat, Duncan takes a moment’s rest from his worries. But he does not yet know that his already strained faith is about to be tested by his interactions with a troubled boy, 18-year-old Danny MacKay.
Known to fellow priests as the “Exorcist” because of his special role as clean-up man for the Bishop of Antigonish, Duncan has a talent for coolly reassigning deviant priests while ensuring minimal fuss from victims and their families. It has been a lonely vocation, but Duncan is generally satisfied that his work is a necessary defense of the church. All this changes when lawyers and a policeman snoop too close for the bishop’s comfort. Duncan is assigned a parish in the remote Cape Breton community of Creignish and told to wait it out.
This is not the first time Duncan has been sent away for knowing too much: decades ago, the displeased bishop sent a more idealistic Duncan to Honduras for voicing suspicions about a revered priest. It was there that Duncan first tasted forbidden love, with the beautiful Jacinta. It was also there that he met the courageous Father Alfonso, who taught him more about spiritual devotion than he had ever known back home. But when an act of violence in Honduras shook Duncan to his core, he returned home a changed man, willing to quietly execute the bishop’s commands.
Now, decades later in Cape Breton, Duncan claims to his concerned sister Effie that isolation is his preference. But when several women seek to befriend him, along with some long-estranged friends, Duncan is alternately tempted and unnerved by their attentions. Drink becomes his only solace.
Attempting to distract himself with parish work, Duncan takes an interest in troubled young Danny, whose good-hearted father sells Duncan a boat he names The Jacinta. To Duncan’s alarm, he discovers that the boy once spent time with an errant priest who had been dispatched by Duncan himself to Port Hood. Duncan begins to ask questions, dreading the answers. When tragedy strikes, he knows that he must act. But will his actions be those of a good priest, or an all too flawed man?
Winner of the 2009 Scotiabank Giller Prize, Linden MacIntyre’s searing The Bishop’s Man is an unforgettable and complex character study of a deeply conflicted man at the precipice of his life. Can we ever be certain of an individual’s guilt or innocence? Is violence ever justified? Can any act of contrition redeem our own complicity?
This was a book that I really wanted to like. It won the Giller Prize in 2009 and I had heard good things about it, and had high hopes for it. Unfortunately, I didn’t love it.
The premise of the book really intrigued me. I suppose I thought the book would be more about Father MacAskill’s actual work as ‘the Bishop’s man’, but it turned out to be mostly about his life in small-town Creignish, his relationship with his family, his isolation and loneliness, and the eventual effects that it all has on him.
Much of the story was told through flashbacks to different parts of Father MacAskill’s life. Perhaps it was the way the book was formatted for the e-reader, but I found this very confusing as there was no noticeable break when the book would flashback, and I would not understand who was speaking until I read further on and realized the story had jumped back.
Parts of the book were pretty good. I enjoyed reading about Father MacAskill’s experiences as a priest and his thoughts on the priesthood, e.g. that priests should be men, not saints. I also thought the part towards the end of the book where he goes to a place called Braecrest and meets another priest was very good.
Unfortunately, I just couldn’t connect with any of the characters, which is probably why it took me so very long to finish this book. I didn’t feel compelled to keep reading.
I don’t want to give away too much, but there is a subplot in the book involving a young man in town and a tragedy that takes place. I was curious to see how this would be resolved, but even when it was, I wasn’t quite satisfied. I wanted more out of this subplot I think.
Although I was initially excited to read this book, I was ultimately disappointed. I found that it meandered and seemed to take a long time to get where it was going, which made it difficult for me to sustain any real interest in the outcome and the characters. Of course, other people have read this book and loved it, and this is, after all, just my opinion.
If you’ve read this book, I’d love to hear what you thought about it in the comments.