Trevor reviews The Bishop’s Man

macintyre Shadow Giller juror Trevor Berrett has posted his review of Linden MacIntyre’s The Bishop’s Man — you can find the full review here. Here’s an excerpt to get you interested:

And so this reader comes to the end of the Giller shortlist, a journey I much enjoyed, even if some of the stops were not as pleasing as others. After venturing to Egypt, Cambodia, and ancient Macedon for the previous three Giller shortlisted titles, The Bishop’s Man (2009) brings us back to Canada, which is a fitting way to end one of Canada’s great literary prizes.

Though this book brings me back to Canada, the locale is no more familiar to me than, say, Egypt. (I hope I don’t muddle it up by my lack of familiarity). It takes place in Creignish, on Cape Breton Island in Nova Scotia, by the descriptions and tone of the book, a stunning and sobering isolated area. Our narrator is a priest, Father Duncan MacAskill. He is the Bishop’s man. In other words, in the last twenty years, whenever there has been a problem with a fellow priest, the Bishop sends Father MacAskill to handle the problem with speed and discretion. Father MacAskill’s voice is a nice mixture of hope and melancholy, and I enjoyed that combination as MacAskill himself leaned one way or the other throughout the book. Here is the mixture shown in the first paragraph of the novel:

“The night before things started to become unstuck, I actually spent a good hour taking stock of my general situation and concluded that, all things considered, I was in pretty good shape. I was approaching the age of fifty, a psychological threshold only slightly less daunting than death, and found myself not much changed from forty or even thirty. If anything, I was healthier. The last decade of the century, and of the millennium, was shaping up to be less stressful than the eighth — which had been defined by certain events in Central America — and the ninth, burdened as it was by scandals at home.”

And here's a link to my earlier review of the book — I should note that I am halfway through a second read and am more impressed this time around.

All three jurors have now completed their reading of the shortlist and deliberations have begun. Barring complications, I hope to post the announcement of the 2009 Shadow Giller Prize winner on Friday, Nov. 6. Please stop by and criticize our decision then (well, you can congratulate us on an excellent choice if you want as well).

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10 Responses to “Trevor reviews The Bishop’s Man”

  1. Rick P Says:

    Kevin,

    I know Shadow Giller voted for Barnacle Love last year. I was curious what other differences you have had with the actual Giller jury over the years.

  2. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Rick: We are informal enough that we don’t have an archive. But here are some differences in the Giller history.

    2005 — David Bergen, The Time In-Between — I was in the process of moving so no jury that year — but personally, I did not like this book. Or any of the others. It was a very weak year.
    2002 — We did not have a Shadow Giller that year because we liked Carol Shields’ Unless a lot and did not want to read the eventual winner, The Polished Hoe (which I still have not read and do not intend to).
    1998 — The Shadow jury selected Wayne Johnston’s The Colony of Unrequited Dreams over Alice Munro’s The Love Of a Good Woman and knew we would be out of step. We were.
    1996 — We took Ann-Marie Macdonald’s Fall on Your Knees over the eventual winner, Margaret “Dame Peggy” Atwood’s Alias Grace. Fall on Your Knees is the most deserving non-Giller winner in my opinion but we decided we didn’t owe Ann-Marie $50,000 when her book was made an Oprah choice. Little-known fact: Ann-Marie’s partner, Alicia Palmer, is the designer-director of Atwood’s Canadian performances for The Year of the Flood.

    So there are some years when we were just lazy (or the Real Jury was lazy — the 2006 shortlist was a travesty of the first order) and some where we had a genuine difference of opinion.

  3. Rick P Says:

    I read two of the 2006 nominees, Bloodletting and Miraculous Cures and De Niro’s Game. I disliked both. I was mystified by De Niro’s Game being awarded the IMPAC. Although, I like the IMPAC process and lack of geographic limitation, they have made some rather offbeat choices.

    I was okay with The Time In Between. I’m neither positive or negative on it.

    I may or may not read The Polished Hoe. I have mostly read bad things about it.

    To be honest, of the last four Giller winners, Through Black Spruce is the only one I liked a lot.

  4. KevinfromCanada Says:

    I pay more attention to the shortlist than I do the winner (I think it is a better reflection of overall quality). Using that criterion, 2006 was a bad year (I think the jury just got too political — Adrienne Clarkson’s influence was not positive). Most of the rest were on the positive side of neutral. I’d say this year’s five are between good and very good — there is a consistent quality, but no really outstanding work. On the positive side, there is no truly dreadful work. And if I added in the four longlist books that I quite like (Baillie, Mootoo, Rothman, Lynes), I would say 2009 is a year when Canadian fiction shows a lot of breadth in better than average works, even if there isn’t a truly outstanding book. I am particularly heartened by the first works — Annabel Lyon, Jeanette Lynes, Deborah Willis, Claire Rothman all offer promise for the future.

  5. winniemacdonald Says:

    my take on the bishop’s man is simply that it requires a second read…..I got the general idea however, but some things bothered me. First the macaskill and macvicar names are not catholic cregnish names, Cape bretoners always settled in religious and family patterns this was confusing. and where did Linden dig up the names of the people involved? like sextus, I never heard that name in my life here.
    There were always women who taunted and flirted with priests in the past….I thought that the characer Duncan was a little too explicit in his encounters….but then it may have been that way who knew,,,,,The book didn’t tell me anything I already didn’t know. We catholic are still smarting from the lastest news of sexual abuse….Why did the names of the bishop ever come up. ….I am a cape bretoner and I knew all about the cover up etc etc…we all knew, oh well, the foundation of the church is very rocky to say the least.

  6. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Hi Winnie: Linden MacIntyre was born and raised on Cape Breton (and has written a memoir about it) — I’ve only visited a couple of times so am in no position to defend him or support your opinion (although I do know that the legendary Cape Breton giant was Angus MacAskill).

    In many ways, I think MacIntyre was not well served by the latest sexual abuse case with the Bishop of Antigonish (it came up after his book appeared). While that is one of the challenges that affects Duncan, it is only one — and you are quite right that it took me a second read to figure that out.

  7. Suzanne Burhcell Says:

    The Bishop’s man had no hold on me throughout the book.As a Nova Scotian I did not taste the unique flavour of my homeland . The novel skirts the issues of abuse – how could the priest have been so naive ??? His time in rehab did not ring true at all.There is no intimacy in this novel- all is on the surface. I finished the novel relieved it was done and would never recommend anyone spend time on such an obvious and lack lustre account .I am leary of the Giller jury now. The novel Disapppeared on the other hand is a searing read that captured my imagination, opened my understanding of the power of love and informed me of the true nature of the horrors of genocide. This was a brilliantly written novel where scenes and characters were crystalline in their description. Images are still strongly imprinted in my mind . Winter Vault was equally a gratifying read and resonates with me frequently as I now understand the plight of the dispossed as never before. the craft of fime writing never faulters in this novel.

  8. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Thanks for your opinion, Suzanne — it goes to show that different readers react to books in very different ways. I thought The Bishop’s Man was very well done (although it did take me two reads to realize that). The character study that MacIntyre produced made it a very rewarding read. By contrast, I found The Disappeared shallow — and thought The Winter Vault was so over-written as to be opaque. All of which shows that readers react to books in quite different ways. I do try to keep in mind when I review a book that I find wanting that that may simply be a reflection of my tastes — and that others may reach a very different conclusion. Again, thanks for commenting.

  9. Suzanne Burchell Says:

    yes Kevin it is a matter of taste and the time in one’s life often……………I read Bishop’s Man right after Galore. Galore was riveting from beginning to end and resonated fully with my East Coast heritage – it is story telling at its finest………….I am considering taking breaks in between novels to allow these writings to stand on their own rather than in the shadow of a previous read. Connection to a novel is a complex matter. For Winter Vault I grew up on the great laker freighters , a daughter of a chief engineer and saw the Cornwall flooding and remember the little old locks and the new locks- the connection to this part of the past was so vivid. Change is a huge issue in understanding life and how to deal with the inevitable changes that come. I spoke with the author of Disappeared in Burlington – she shared her experience of the meeting a woman who had lost her entire family in the genocide. Our conversation gave me a ‘foothold’ in the book as I had written an play 2 years ago after a conversation with a woman who had lost much in her life . So there you are- reading is an intimate and personal experience and how rich it is to have the senses to indulge in good reading and exchange of opinion

  10. KevinfromCanada Says:

    I have Galore on hand, but keep shying away from it. Crummey’s statements that he was inspired by One Hundred Years of Solitude (a book that I don’t like at all) are a major disincentive. And I could certainly understand that reading Galore and A Bishop’s Man one after the other (in whichever order) would be a jarring experience — it seems to me inevitable that one would have to suffer (and, of course, I have only read one).

    Given your background, I can understand why The Winter Vault would provoke a positive response. I too remember the opening of the Seaway and found that part of the novel — and the comparisons with Egypt quite good, although I’ll admit even then Michael’s baroque language was a significant barrier. Part Two and the Warsaw story was opaque as far as I was concerned — interesting, a good friend who knows Warsaw well found that part much better than part one.

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