The Gospel of Winter by Brendan Kiely
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Rarely does a book come along and creep into your bones and settle there with a chill you can't seem to shake, and you realize you're numb, and you've no idea how you got that way. Brendan Kiely has deftly articulated an unflinching, honest portrayal of what it is to be seduced and abused by a priest who uses the tenants of the Catholic church and the promise of truth and love and the pursuit of "good work" to trap a boy as he becomes a man in a world that lies and dupes him into thinking he can survive that betrayal and live a normal life.
Aidan Donovan may think he has it all, but he's not fooling anyone. From the start the reader can see right through the carefully articulated mask he's wearing at his mother's party. His family has money, but it's falling apart from the inside out. Aidan's father is in Europe with his mistress, and he's ready to tell his wife he isn't coming back. Aidan and his mother try to keep up the guise of a happy family, but the truth comes out before the party is over.
At the party, Aiden meets Mark Kowolski, a boy on the swim team, and two girls, Josie and Sophie, who join them in Aidan's father's study where they get into mischief drinking and smoking and whatever drugs the wealthy use to find their party high. Every line snorted or pill popped is just another layer of the mask worn to prove they've got it all together. But the line between truth and reality is threadbare and Aidan can't keep his ruse going before he loses it and everything falls apart.
When Aidan finds himself alone, after the others leave the party, Father Greg, the younger of two priests at Most Precious Blood, makes an appearance that helps Aidan find his legs and re-center himself under the protection of this man who gives him the promise of finding a cause to believe in, and a future full of promise and significance he so desperately needs.
His mother means well, but she crafts her own mask of "fake it 'til you make it," throwing a lavish party just before Aidan's father tells her he's leaving her for good. She's well-practiced at putting on the smile while her world is falling apart, the way her marriage is, and she's forced to start over.
While the book takes its time getting going, once all the pieces are in play, Aidan hurtles forward, going from party to party with his friends Mark, Josie, and Sophie, who join him in the dance of smoking and drinking and drugging until they're all too drunk or stoned to realize they're not fooling anyone.
As the edges of Aidan's reality start to come undone, and the seams begin to tear at the edges of his multi-layered mask, the truth of what is carefully hidden beneath the surface begins to unfold and force its way to the light of day. The truth always has a way of coming out, whether we want it to or not.
I won't spoil it for other readers, but as the story turns a corner and begins to fall apart, Kiely uses every stone carefully paved along the path of Aidan's life to shatter the glass house he's constructed around himself. With that much shattered glass, anyone in Aidan's place would have found himself cut and bleeding from an almost imperceptible and hidden source. Yet, it's as plain as the mask he's so quick to hide behind, he's simply forgotten the mask is there in the first place.
As a CSA survivor myself, I know the horror of Aidan's plight all too well. And as the others come forward, reeling from the living nightmare they've been thrust into, Aidan finds himself at the edge of a precipice, and he's terrified he'll get pulled into the current and drowned by the wave of lies and deceit that trapped him there. Aidan makes a valiant effort to lie to himself, the ultimate betrayal, and pretend that the horrible things happened to those other boys, and not him, and not at Most Precious Blood, where he was promised a future in exchange for his soul. It's just another lie, like the gospel of winter that settles in, white and pure as snow or water on the frozen surface, hiding the bleeding current of betrayal and lies and sin below the hardened crust.
This story will creep in and settle in like so many words whispered against your ear, but it will also stir up what's hidden below, what Aidan desperately wishes he could hide and pretend never happened, but he can't lie to himself forever, nor can he lie to those who know he's wearing a mask, and eventually, the truth breaks through the lies and finds its way out, leaving Aidan to decide if he should keep the lies to himself, or speak up and be set free by the truth he's afraid might spill out over lips he's forced into a smile for far too long.
This is a book that is soul-changing, and gut-wrenching, and as honest as a boy who survived the damning truth that he lives in a world where men take what they want, and leave a trail of boy-husks in their wake. It's a gospel told to the world, a world that would rather believe the lie, than face the fact that this truth is far too real, and too uncomfortably close to deny, although we'd like to pretend it's not there. I applaud Kiely for his brave stance to speak up and yank the carpet out from underneath us all, where we can't look away from the truth uncovered, a basement of horrors with a workbench and a glass of scotch to make it go down easier.
A stunning, must-read, and a brilliant debut.
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