Friday, September 14, 2012

The All of It by Jeannette Haien

     Father Declan de Loughry has lived a relatively quiet life in a quaint little Irish town.  When he's not serving his parishioners, he's usually fishing for salmon and meditating.  As Haien's novel opens, Father Declan is fishing for salmon with very little luck and distracted by thoughts of Kevin and Enda Dennehy.  The Dennehy's have been a staple in their small community for decades, and Kevin has just unexpectedly passed away.  But Father Declan is not preoccupied by grief - yes, Kevin's death is tragic, but even more worrisome is the confession that Kevin made to his priest just before his death.  Unfortunately, Kevin died before he could finish the story, so it's up to his wife, Enda, to deliver the rest of the tale and confess "the all of it."

     As Enda reveals secret after secret, Father Declan is overwhelmed by truth.  Right before his death, Kevin confessed that he and Enda were never actually married, but he died before he got a chance to explain.  Now it's up to Enda to reveal the truth - and the truth is painful, tragic, and controversial.  Father Declan is so astounded at the depth and nature of her story that he is unsure how to handle the truth.  His first instinct is to point fingers and condemn, but as Enda reveals more complications and hidden corners in her story, Father Declan's opinion of the Dennehy's shifts between amazement, horror, sympathy, and compassion.

     The All of It is a very small, but moving story built at the intersection of religion, morality, and circumstance.  Father Declan's first reaction to Enda's confession is horror and embarrassment.  He spits heavy words at Enda, saying "I'm personally mortified for the two of you.  What have you been thinking these many years...before God with your sin...and deceiving your neighbors-" (p. 12).  But the truth is more complicated than he ever imagined and by the end of the novel, Father Declan must face his own moral dilemma.

     Written in 1986 but still incredibly relevant, Jeannette Haien's debut novel is a compelling examination of a case where hard and fast religious boundaries are blurred by circumstance and tragedy - where blame is elusive and sin is uncertain.  Haien's novel may not feel overtly powerful, but its grace and candor cannot be overlooked as readers are reminded that grief, guilt, desire, and empathy are profoundly complex human emotions, and that morality can prove to be baffling and indecipherable just when we think we've mastered it.

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