An Exorcist's Tale
- Linden MacIntyre (Author)
The Bishop's Man. Random House (purchase at Amazon.ca)
Reviewed by Pamela Owen
The narrator of Linden MacIntyre’s 2008 Giller Prize winning novel, The Bishop’s Man, is Father Duncan MacAskill, a fifty-year-old Catholic priest who, after working as a Catholic missionary in Honduras and acting as Dean of Students for the local university in Nova Scotia, is assigned by the Bishop to his first parish, Stella Maris, in tiny Creignish, on southern Cape Breton Island. While the novel is set in the mid-1990s, we soon learn that MacAskill is a man haunted by the ghostly memories of his past. These memories remain locked and suppressed within the vaults of MacAskill’s mind. But within the confines of Creignish, an area situated uncomfortably close to the area where he grew up, a “non-place” called The Long Stretch, MacAskill must come head-to-head with the demons of his past. In the lonely glebe house of this tiny rural parish, MacAskill encounters the cold hard facts and consequences of the life he has lived, both in the priesthood and in growing up as the son of a local drunk. Until this point in his life, Father MacAskill has spent most of his priesthood acting on the demands of the Bishop. Labelled by students and colleagues as “The Exorcist,” Duncan, the Bishop’s man, is noted for his experience in “rooting out perversions,” tidying away potential scandal, and providing discipline when cases are particularly sensitive. The additional task of tidying away the emotions of the victims becomes MacAskill’s cross to bear, a responsibility which wears away at his sense of justice and of his calling, most specifically, when he is forced to reflect upon the implications of his role as the Bishop’s man. This occurs shortly after Father MacAskill’s assignment to Creignish, when 19-year-old Danny MacKay, a boy whom he has befriended and to whom he is distantly related, commits suicide. When a whispered accusation in the confessional names Brendan Bell as the cause, MacAskill sees, in horror, how he has acted as the catalyst that set the events of this tragedy into motion. MacAskill’s subsequent efforts to get to the truth of the matter bring him into confrontation with the Bishop, whose sole purpose is to protect the church, regardless of the damage some of its priests have wreaked upon their young and vulnerable victims. With the passing years in Creignish, MacAskill confronts the truth of his role in the church, as well as the other ghosts from his past. The dysfunctional family dynamics of growing up on Long Stretch Road resurface and, through a series of journals, so do mysterious events in Honduras involving a woman, Jacinta, and a Central American priest, Alfonso.
The Bishop’s Man is a story set during a time of transition. The novel provides an artistic and thought-provoking illustration of how, in the midst of change, we struggle with definitions of self and self in relation to others. This becomes a significant struggle for Father Duncan MacAskill who not only is working to define himself as a man pushed to the breaking point by loneliness, tragedy, and sudden self-knowledge, but also to understand his role in the Catholic church, an institution which is also in the midst of a transition, struggling to establish its own identity, an identity which, too, is pushed to provide meaning and substance for both its clergy and its congregation.
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MLA: Owen, Pamela. An Exorcist's Tale. canlit.ca. Canadian Literature, 8 Dec. 2011. Web. 18 May 2013.
This review originally appeared in Canadian Literature #206 (Autumn 2010). (pg. 163 - 164)
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