Faith, published in 2011, was about a family torn apart by abuse scandals involving Catholic priests. Her next book, Heat & Light (2016), explored the fracking debate in Western Pennsylvania. And Haigh’s new novel, Mercy Street (Ecco), focuses on abortion and how reproductive rights are under siege.
But Haigh, who releases a novel approximately every five years, doesn’t draw from current events for her stories.
“It takes so long that you never know if you’re writing something timely,” says Haigh, who appears Sat., Feb. 5 with Pittsburgh-based writer Stewart O’Nan in a virtual event sponsored by Riverstone Books. “It’s definitely an accident. … I write about the thing I care about the most in that moment. And I think because I’m a person who lives in the world, my concerns aren't that different from everybody else.”
Mercy Street features a nuanced set of characters, including Claudia, a counselor at the women’s health center; Timmy, a weed dealer facing a mid-life crisis; Anthony, disabled during a construction accident and a regular protester at the clinic; and Victor, a retired truck driver who posts images on a website of women entering clinics across the country. They are unremarkable in most ways, unnoticed save by a few friends and acquaintances.
Haigh, who grew up in Barnesboro, Cambria Country, tries to maintain a balanced approach when writing about characters with opposing views. Especially in Heat & Light she was careful to present both the economic and environmental concerns of fracking.
But after volunteering at a women’s clinic in Boston where she now lives, Haigh admits the story favors the women who work at and seek the services of the book’s fictional clinic.
“Abortion is one of those issues that everybody has an opinion about,” she says. “And yet a lot of those people don’t know very much about what is involved, about who does abortions and why. And a lot of the assumptions people make about that are just dead wrong. That’s something I learned during the time I volunteered at this clinic.”
While most of the novel takes place in Boston, the novel does have scenes in rural Pennsylvania, the setting for Haigh’s novels Baker Towers and Heat & Light. It’s an area she knows well and finds “endlessly interesting,” and continues to write about because it always seems to connect to other things that are happening in the world.
“But in my part of the world, it was a commonplace thing. … I grew up in a community that was overwhelmingly Catholic. I went to 12 years of Catholic school, and I knew that abortion was evil before I knew how to get pregnant. It’s a thing I remember being told about when I was six, seven years old. That is where I’m coming from, as a person and as a writer. I’ve been getting that message my whole life.”
Without giving away too much, the resolution of Mercy Street is stunning in that it is not stunning. There are no overarching moments of revelation, of pain or joy. It would have been so easy — and trite — for Haigh to make a statement.
But instead, the characters’ fates embody a line in the book: “the unknowable muchness of the world beyond.”
The protests will continue at the clinic, and Claudia will continue to counsel the women who show up. Victor, after a fateful trip, returns home to live the rest of his life. Anthony finds a partially fulfilling job at a grocery store. Only Timmy has his life irrevocably changed.
“For all of these characters, life just continues,” Haigh says. “There’s the question that the book is very concerned with about the threat to the clinic and the risks to the people who work there. That doesn’t get resolved because in life it doesn’t get resolved.
“If you work in this world, that is part of your life, and it never goes away.”
Jennifer Haigh in conversation with Stewart O’Nan. 4 p.m. Sat., Feb. 5. Online, sponsored by Riverstone Books. Free with registration. riverstonebookstore.com