STARRED REVIEW
September 2017

A life lived half in shadow

By John Boyne

Not long ago, it would have been fantasy that Ireland would have a gay prime minister, but the majority-Catholic country welcomed its first in 2017. The country has evolved from an often hateful hierocracy to a seat of social liberalism. Of this evolution, John Boyne’s new novel is an essential witness.

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Not long ago, it would have been fantasy that Ireland would have a gay prime minister, but the majority-Catholic country welcomed its first in 2017. The country has evolved from an often hateful hierocracy to a seat of social liberalism. Of this evolution, John Boyne’s new novel is an essential witness.

In 1945, the priesthood tears the novel’s narrator, Cyril, as an infant from his mother. A banker and his literary wife, Maude Avery, adopt him. Cyril discovers that he has no interest in girls, instead nursing a crush on his best mate, Julian. Homosexuality in Ireland being both sinful and criminal, Cyril must stay mum. But he confesses his many backroom trysts to a priest, who croaks as a result.

Like many gay men, Cyril marries out of convention, but not before professing his love to Julian. This goes over like a lead balloon, so Cyril finds himself in Amsterdam in Conradian exile. Dutch mores are more amenable; Cyril meets the love of his life. But even Holland has its hostilities. So the pair ends up in New York City at the height of the AIDS crisis. There Cyril becomes a volunteer in an AIDS clinic, and he and his partner adopt a son after a fashion. Normalcy is within reach before a homophobe assaults the pair in Central Park.

These are Furies on the visible spectrum. They pursue Cyril back to Ireland, where signs of a thaw are already evident. (Cyril is even propositioned by a bisexual pol aspiring to become prime minister.) Cyril reconciles with the ghosts of his past, including his estranged wife and biological mother.

More than a coming-of-age story, The Heart’s Invisible Furies is one man’s journey from persecution to toleration. Punctuated with simple dialogue, its nearly 600 pages betray Maude’s dictum that “brevity is the key.” But the novel seldom lags and often delights.

 

This article was originally published in the September 2017 issue of BookPage. Download the entire issue for the Kindle or Nook.

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