Brendan Kiely's lyrical prose belies the gut-wrenching story in his daring debut novel, The Gospel of Winter, about sixteen-year-old Aiden Donovan and the ever-so-hip priest, Father Greg, who sexually abuses him.
For all appearances, Aiden is a typical teen from an upper middle class Connecticut family. It is December 2001. Aiden gets good grades at his private school, he's on the swim team, he volunteers to help in Most Precious Blood parish's fund drive to help inner city Catholic schools. Aside from the fact that Aiden's father, Old Donovan, has abandoned the family by retreating to Europe pending a divorce, the remaining family - Mother, Aiden and nanny Elena presents itself as healthy and normal; everything looks as it should be. Mother's traditional Christmas Eve gala house party is a smashing success. She's even made sure that Aiden has the company of three schoolmates to enrich his evening - which they promptly achieve by either snorting Adderall, smoking pot or raiding Old Donovan's liquor stash. Fun times. Adolescent hijinks. No real harm done.
But Kiely hints at a darkness within. "What was the John Dunne poem we'd read?...'No Man is an Island'? Not here. We were a goddamn archipelago that called itself a community. Why did I feel like I was the only one who lived in a nightmare?" Then when Father Greg arrives at the party, Aiden lights up, feeling like he and the priest are "teammates on the field." He's elated, jealously clinging to the priest with an unnervingly hyper-natural ferocity. Nothing is explicitly smarmy about this. Maybe it's just my motherly gut reacting to something a tad "off" about this relationship. Aiden's Mother, too self-involved with her marital problems, senses nothing. Elena's motherly gut just tells her to pray. God, she believes, will make everything right.
But times are uncertain. The 9/11 attacks are still a gaping wound a mere two months on. It's to be expected that kids - especially teenagers - might feel more uncertainty, have more angst than usual. Plus, even though Aiden puts on the mask (his word) of bravado, he is scared. He really needs the assurances that Father Greg repeats: that God loves him, is inside him and with him at all times. The teen believes when the priest says that, "God was with me, and yet God had to work through people like him sometimes...in order to remind me of His presence."
Even so, Aiden laments, "God wasn't firmly placed in my mind, but Father Greg was actually there, and something tangible was what I needed most. Certainty." And it's when Aiden pursues his needed certainty that he accidentally witnesses the priest bringing an eighth grader to their (Aiden's and Father Greg's) special place, giving the kid "their" scotch, repeating the now-familiar, tender, God-loving assurances to the boy as he consummates a union that Aiden thought was exclusive with him.
To be honest, as a mother of two (now grown) sons I reacted viscerally to this novel. Make no mistake. There is no graphic sexuality here. No. What is worse is the raw, graphic emotion. "I slid down the wall and tucked my knees to my chest...I couldn't hear anything except the voice in my own head, Father Greg's voice telling me, This, too, is a part of love - this is love, our love - only for the two of us." That the priest promises Aiden a monogamous love affair, with a personal God through Father Greg and with Father Greg, and then breaks it, sends the boy into a tailspin. He can't use the life skills Elena taught him. Prayer and God are no longer options. He tries the life skills he learned from Old Donovan: put on a mask, create a reality of your own choosing, get on with it. It's tough going. Then in early January, the pedophile priest scandal in Boston rocks the very foundations of the Catholic Church. It rocks Aiden too, down to his foundation.
Spoiler Alert: Readers looking for a sunshine-and-daffodils, wedding-bells-and-roses happy ending should not pick up The Gospel of Winter. On the other hand, Aiden's story is one that should be read by virtue of its blunt honesty about what happens to a child who's been sexually molested. It should also be read for the eloquence of its telling. And it may be shared with mature teens for the richness of topics for discussion.
This review was originally published in February 2014, and has been updated for the February 2015 paperback release. Click here to go to this issue.
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