Synopses & Reviews
Something about the boat, perhaps its name, and the posture of that boy caused me to defer my anxieties for the moment. It was so rare to see someone that age stationary, somber. I was more accustomed to a rowdy adolescent enthusiasm. This young man, I realized, was exceptional only because of time and place. Maybe any one of them in those circumstances would have been the same. Quiet. But he caught my attention nevertheless and linked the moment to tender places in the memory. Doomed boys and men: in retrospect they all have that stillness.
--from The Bishop’s Man by Linden MacIntyre
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?
From an award-winning writer and one of Canadas foremost broadcast journalists, comes a deeply wise and moving novel that explores the guilty minds and spiritual evasions of Catholic priests.
Father Duncan MacAskill has spent most of his priesthood as the “Exorcist” an enforcer employed by his bishop to discipline wayward priests and suppress potential scandal. He knows all the devious ways that lonely priests persuade themselves that their needs trump their vows, but hes about to be sorely tested himself. While sequestered by his bishop in a small rural parish to avoid an impending public controversy, Duncan must confront the consequences of past cover-ups and the suppression of his own human needs. Pushed to the breaking point by loneliness, tragedy and sudden self-knowledge, Duncan discovers how hidden obsessions and guilty secrets either find their way to the light of understanding, or poison any chance we have for love and spiritual peace.
About the Author
Linden MacIntyre is one of Canada’s most distinguished broadcast journalists. The winner of nine Gemini Awards, he is the co-host of CBC Television’s the fifth estate
and has been involved in the production of documentaries and stories from all over the world. Born in St. Lawrence, Newfoundland, MacIntyre grew up in Port Hastings, Cape Breton. He now lives in Toronto with his wife, fellow journalist Carol Off.
In 1999, MacIntyre published The Long Stretch, to tremendous critical acclaim. This first novel was shortlisted for the Dartmouth Book Award as well as the Canadian Booksellers Association Libris Award.
MacIntyre’s 2006 memoir Causeway: A Passage from Innocence detailed his rural Cape Breton childhood. It earned him both the Edna Staebler Award for Creative Non-Fiction and the Evelyn Richardson Prize for Non-Fiction.
Published in 2009, The Bishop’s Man was awarded Canada’s top fiction honour, the Scotiabank Giller Prize.
Reading Group Guide
1. What techniques does MacIntyre use to build suspense? Consider, for example, the opening phrase “The night before things started to become unstuck . . . ” How does MacIntyre’s use of foreshadowing and flashbacks affect your experience of the novel?
2. Discuss the various forms of isolation in the novel. How does isolation impact Duncan’s life? Is it something he dislikes, or craves? Why?
3. Discuss the impact of suicide on the community of Creignish, across generations. How has Duncan been affected by his own interactions with suicide?
4. Years ago Duncan trained himself to ignore the protests of errant priests. “Accuse the accuser, one of their best tactics,” he notes (p. 133). What drives Duncan to face his own transgressions? What are your thoughts on his romantic alliances? What is your opinion on the issue of celibacy in the priesthood?
5. At Braecrest, Dr. Shaw observes that Duncan's father, his “young woman” and his priesthood occupy the same place in his memory, a place of "despair neutralized by hope" (p. 342). Do you think this is an accurate assessment? What are the sources of despair, and hope, in Duncan’s life?
6. Duncan wonders, “So many of these priests are clever, funny men. The freaks are so rare. But they're the only ones I really know. How have I managed to spend twenty-seven years in this ministry and known only the bad ones? Why have I never been part of the wider community of funny, clever and perhaps even holy men? What is it that draws me to the tragic and the flawed?” (p. 264). How would you answer these questions? Could Duncan have found a different role in the church? Could his gifts have been put to better use?
7. Duncan opens Book Three by describing “the day my life began assuming what I expect will be its final shape.” After meeting a police officer, he momentarily considers Alfonso’s teachings about contrition, before listening to another unnamed voice in his head (p. 207). What do you think of Alfonso’s assertion that true contrition must be an act that results in positive change? How would things have been different if Duncan had heeded Alfonso’s words that day? Did he miss other opportunities? Where does the other voice come from?
8. Discuss the behaviour of fathers in the novel, both biological and within the clergy. How do they leave their mark? What about the women of Creignish?
9. Discuss the strategies Effie and Duncan each developed as a means of surviving their dysfunctional childhoods. How are they the same? How different?
10. Discuss the role alcohol plays in the community of Creignish, and in Duncan’s life. What is it that finally gives him the strength to stop drinking? Do you think he will stay sober?
11. “The phone aroused me on that Monday morning in Port Hood and launched the narrative that I must now, with some reluctance, share” (p. 5). Who do you suppose Duncan intends as his audience? Do you always trust his words? Does your opinion of his reliability change at any point as you read? What is your opinion of Duncan, overall?
12. In their final conversation, Jude warns Duncan that "There's no morality in an institution. It's just a thing" (p. 354). Do you agree?
13. What do you think of Duncan’s gatekeeper role? Would you say that he was complicit in a cover up? Or is he absolved because he was following orders? Do other factors mitigate his responsibility?
14. Could this novel still work if Duncan were a teacher, soldier or politician?
15. How do you feel about the novel’s ending? What is your opinion of Duncan’s actions near the end? Does he go far enough? Where do you think his life will take him?
16. Consider the passages MacIntyre uses as epigraphs to each of the four books in the novel. What is the significance of each?
17. This novel is a work of fiction that could be described as “ripped from the headlines.” How would you compare the experience of reading this novel with that of reading news reports? What are the pros and cons of each format?