Beginning in Goleen, West Cork, in 1945, and continuing in seven-year intervals up to 2015, taking in Dublin City, Amsterdam, New York City, and Maribor, perhaps the biggest disappointment about John Boyne’s new novel is how predictable and plodding it is.
The Heart’s Invisible Furies, a po-faced title, begins with the narrator Cyril Avery’s mother, then aged 16, being denounced as a whore by the parish priest who beats her in front of the Sunday congregation and throws her out of the community.
Catherine Goggin is to have a child out of wedlock — the father is a family member — so she heads for Dublin city.
She moves in with a gay couple, one of whom is soon killed by his father, a drunk from Ballincollig.
On the same night, her son is born. Catherine has a plan, however, and the boy is adopted by an eccentric family, with the help of a hunchbacked Redemptorist nun. And from there, Cyril — not a real Avery — begins his life story.
At over 600 pages, Boyne, best known for The Boy In The Striped Pyjamas, gives himself plenty of space to tell Cyril’s story of coming to terms with his sexuality and identity, never forgiving Ireland for failing to come to terms with its identity.
It’s a country where the “women are always the whores; the priests are always the good men who were led astray”.
He feels something stirring at the age of seven, when a whirlwind of a boy named Julian comes into his life, already talking about sex and eyeing up his adoptive mother.
She is one of two wildly successful writers who fall into Cyril’s life, though she doesn’t want success. She is apoplectic when her husband’s scandalous ways cause one of her novels to enter the bestsellers list at Hodges Figgis.
There follows tales of underage drinking with a leering Brendan Behan, a kidnapping and friendly blackmail, murder, the IRA bombing of Nelson’s Pillar, ineffective politics, the spread of Aids, women’s role in society (or lack thereof), and far too much more.
Life is full of coincidences; Boyne takes this cliche and adds predictability to the point of tedium.
Cyril runs into his mother numerous times over the years: She’s become the tea lady in the Dáil and tells off one of the new girls for serving Cyril and Julian pints when they’re 14; she sits at his table in a cafe on his wedding day; she helps dispose of a body in Amsterdam that Cyril may have something to do with.
The recurring situations are predictable and frustrating. It also feels like Boyne loses interest with the seven-year intervals.
Whereas the 1963 bombing of Nelson’s Pillar is key to the story — or at least kills off one problem for Cyril — come 1994 he’s just in the pub watching Ireland play at Giants Stadium; in 2001 he finds himself watching the 9/11 attacks with TDs — neither plays a role in the story other than to serve as background and filler.
Boyne’s tone is strange. Deep issues are undercut by black comic humour .
It rarely suits its subject matter. There are laughs to be had, however. At his wedding to Julian’s sister, her socialite father has invited his friends and thus the average age of the party is over 65.
“There’s a man over there wearing an actual colostomy bag outside his trousers,” says the bride.
Cyril points out: “Not anymore. A child ran into him and burst it.”
There are also poignant moments, like when Cyril is volunteering in an Aids treatment ward in New York — but surprise, surprise he runs into an old friend who has fallen ill with the disease.
There’s a good story in here, but Boyne tries his best to hide it.
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