The Heart’s Invisible Furies by John Boyne


This polemic against intolerance toward gay men, is vehement about the church in Ireland. It begins with the day the narrator’s 16 year old mother was denounced by the priest from the pulpit in a village in the west of Ireland because she was pregnant. Not only was she denounced as a whore, she was driven from the village that same day by the priest who himself fathered two children.

Her son Cyril was born in 1945, the year I was born. He begins with the detailed story of his mother’s expulsion from home and how she made her way in Dublin. After this beginning, he brings us into the story of his life at seven year intervals. Cyril’s consciousness of course doesn’t begin with his mother’s experience. He was adopted at birth and didn’t learn about her story until he was in his 50s.

Somehow Cyril’s story manages to be engaging and outlandish at the same time; he experiences all the worst that might happen to a gay man over the course of his lifetime. It begins with the murder of a young gay man by his father that happened to be on the night of Cyril’s birth. Then there’s the priest who became apoplectic and died upon hearing Cyril’s confession of his hundreds of nighttime sexual encounters. The deaths begin to pile up with a fiancé and a policeman, then a brutal death in Amsterdam. There he met the love of his life, a doctor specializing in communicable diseases who moved to New York to work in one of the early the AIDS wards. Not surprising that several key characters die there.

Absurd as these and other plot turns seem, Cyril and his friends come to life, are funny, and over the course of years, forgive many of the various unkindnesses to each other. By the time Cyril returned to Ireland, the country had begun to turn away from the power of the priests. The vote in favor of marriage equality in 2015 was part of the close of this novel.

Though a good case can be made that priests in Ireland have been the embodiment of intolerance, still, I am uneasy about that view. As a contrast Bernard MacLaverty’s book The Anatomy School shows both a school run by priests in a very negative light and has a kindly priest. This book brought to mind something Mr. Booklog said when a disagreement denouncing religion broke out among friends of our daughter when they were fourth graders:  “The one thing we do not tolerate in this house is intolerance.” Sometimes the competition for “Most Intolerant” is stiff.

John Boyne, The Heart’s Invisible Furies, Hogarth, 2017, 580 pages (I listened to the audiobook). Available at the public library and from Amazon.

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