John Boyne’s new novel explores the darker side of Irish culture, writes Michele Magwood for the Sunday Times
The Heart’s Invisible Furies
John Boyne (Doubleday)
When John Boyne wrote his previous novel A History of Loneliness, it was the first he had set in his native Ireland. Until then, with a dozen or so books already under his belt, he had never found the right story to tell and the right time to tell it. But with more and more evidence of child abuse at the hands of Catholic priests coming to light, he zeroed in on this disgrace, and on the diabolical power of the church.
In interviews about the book he explained that his own youth had been blighted by priests: “They preached love and practised hatred.”
It was a searing book, fuelled by his ire. But if readers thought his anger and subject matter were spent, they were wrong. He was just getting started, and his new novel The Heart’s Invisible Furies is also underpinned by a barely concealed rage, this time against hypocrisy and Ireland’s attitude to homosexuality and towards women.
On the phone from his home in Dublin, Boyne talks about the new book, a chronicle of the life of one Cyril Avery told in segments of seven years. “They say that every seven years our entire bodies regenerate. I thought it would be interesting, rather than following him constantly through his life, every event of his life, to just pick up every seven years and see where he is.”
The story begins in the rural village of Goleen in County Cork in 1945. The parish priest has discovered that Catherine Goggin, 16, is pregnant, and he blasts her from the pulpit. When she refuses to name the father he literally, appallingly, kicks her down the aisle, banishing her from the parish. Her shamed family will have nothing to do with her, so she climbs on a bus to Dublin.
“Women in Ireland have always had a rough go,” says Boyne, “so I’ve been trying in recent books to write strong female characters to comment on the role of women. I didn’t want Catherine to be a victim at all, I wanted her to be a strong woman who gets on with her life and does well for herself.”
She gives the baby up for adoption, and he is taken in by a well-to-do couple, the Averys, who name him Cyril. From the beginning they remind him that he’s “not a real Avery” and he grows up in a state of benign, distracted neglect.
“They aren’t mean to him in any way, but they’re not exactly loving either. They treat him as an adult when he’s really only a child.”
The lonely boy falls in love with one of his friends, and begins to realise he might be gay. “He’s terrified, he knows this is going to have a difficult effect on his life. Homosexuality was illegal in Ireland and was only decriminalised in the early ’90s.”
Boyne digs deep into his own experiences of growing up gay in that society. Master storyteller that he is, he spins it out for close on 600 pages as we accompany Cyril through the decades. There is discovery and disappointment, pain and elation, Aids and the IRA, a brief marriage and homophobic beatings.
He lives in Amsterdam and New York; he makes good choices and disastrous ones, and comes, finally, to know and accept himself. It is, of course, about the redemptive power of the human spirit. The priest sentenced Catherine and her baby to a life of shame; instead they would live fully and flourish.
One of the novel’s great pleasures is its comedy. To counter its seriousness, Boyne discharges scenes and asides ranging from ribald to deadpan. Maude, Cyril’s adoptive mother, is an eccentric, chain-smoking novelist whose books had “positive reviews but minuscule sales, something that pleased her enormously, for she considered popularity in the bookshops to be vulgar”.
A man is arrested for exposing himself to a young woman “but the charges were dropped when they learned she was a Protestant”.
“I enjoyed writing the comic sections,” he says. “It kind of opened up a part of my brain that I haven’t used much in the past. A lot of my books are quite bleak.”
If you’d encountered Boyne when he was in South Africa in 2015, appearing at the Franschhoek and Kingsmead book festivals, you would have noticed him checking his phone frequently. That’s because he was awaiting news of the referendum at home on same-sex marriage. When Ireland voted “yes” he was elated.
Two years on, though, he is more circumspect.
“Sixty percent wasn’t really a landslide, it meant 40% said no. There are still a lot of people out there who are really offended by how a person is born.”
Still, the country has changed for the better and the stranglehold of the church has diminished greatly.
“They’ve lost all moral authority,” he says. He envies the younger generation. “They don’t have the prejudices and phobias as older people do.”
Boyne is satisfied that he’s laid some ghosts to rest in the last two novels. “I feel I’ve tackled the two big subjects and I feel a weight off my shoulders, so I feel pretty good about that. I’m ready to try something else again.”
Boyne’s best books
The Go-Between by LP Hartley. Probably my favourite novel and one of the great explorations of how a broken heart can shatter a life.
David Copperfield by Charles Dickens. I read this when I was about 13 years old and it was my introduction to adult literature and epic storytelling.
The Cider House Rules by John Irving. My favourite contemporary author, a novel that is political and feminist in nature, it opened my mind to how literature can speak on important subjects while never sacrificing story.
Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë. This taught me how the hero of a novel does not have to be likable, he or she just has to be interesting.
A Boy’s Own Story by Edmund White. A novel I read when I was a teenager coming to terms with my sexuality. White’s fiction and non-fiction has always been both provocative and deeply felt.
The Slap by Christos Tsiolkas. My favourite 21st-century novel. As well as being an incisive study of modern Australia and its attitude to race and gender, it’s a brilliant piece of storytelling with eight distinctive voices.
Follow Michele Magwood @michelemagwood
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