Is Love the All of It?
I read Jeannette Haien’s novel, The All of It (1986), while trekking in the foothills of the Himalayas. Not that it really matters. The book had nothing to do with Nepal; I brought it along because it was thin and light-weight—a perfect hiking companion. And really, The All of It is a book that can be read anytime, anywhere. Though it’s set in rural Ireland, the story that Haien weaves is more of a proverb, one that is fundamentally about human relationships and messy morals.
Father Declan de Loughtry is the reverend of a small church in a town by the sea in Western Ireland. On his deathbed, Kevin Dennehy, one of his parishioners, tells Father Declan that he has a terrible sin to confess, but he dies before he’s able to tell it. Instead, Kevin’s wife Enda, tells Father Declan the story that involves both herself and Kevin; the story is one of harrowing trauma that leads to an incestuous relationship.
Father Declan, a rigidly pious man who is also kind and understanding, is both conflicted and enthralled by Enda’s tale. I, myself, was more enthralled by her story, but less morally conflicted, not being religious myself. Haien’s simple, Hemingway-esque prose (but without the machismo) clearly and compellingly narrates Enda’s distinct experience.
Ultimately, Haien positions human empathy and understanding against the strict moral codes of organized religion, and the tension from this opposition is the most engaging part of the novel. Yet, in the end, this opposition is not fully fleshed out, fully-exposed and resolved. Father Declan doesn’t critically think about catholic moral codes, nor think deeply about the way that his religion might fail to address the human trauma involved in Enda’s situation. Instead, Haien, as a writer, sidesteps the sticky questions regarding morality and religion altogether by concluding her story with the suggestion that love is able to transcend “The All of It.” How beautiful.
Yet, when I closed my book, I felt unresolved. In a world still plagued by confining and exclusionary moral codes that denigrate and stigmatize certain kinds of love, like homosexuality, can love itself really be the answer? Can love solve the all of it? I hope so, but I just don’t know. –Sage Marshall
Sage Marshall '19 studies English at Wesleyan University. He is co-founder and editor of Reverberations. Follow him on Twitter @Sagafanta.
The All of It
By Jeannette Haien