At this year’s BookExpo, surrounded by stacks of galleys (most of which I tried to haul from the Jacob Javitz Center in Manhattan on two different train rides to the South Bronx in an effort to claim the world’s nerdiest #FirstWorldProblems award) I was introduced to the Irish novelist John Boyne by a woman who saw me staring at the pink and red tome with a puzzled look on my face. It was a doozy of a galley, thick and intimidating. I wasn’t sure I could stand to bring one more book home. Still, I find epic novels sexy. All I ever need is an enabler.
“You really need to pick that one up,” she said, as if my internal voice had gone external. “It’s the best book you’ll read all year.”
I’m a trained librarian, a proud bookworm who prefers Goodreads to all other social media, and a writer. Reader, I could not resist.
I was raised Catholic and my frame of reference for all things Ireland is the Catholic Church. I wanted to read Boyne, who has written 10 novels for adults and five for young readers (his international bestseller, The Boy in the Striped Pajamas, is his best-known work), due to a combination of my interest in this very long book as my chosen summer read, the perspective of an Irish writer on the old Catholic mores of Dublin and the country at large, and because I was intrigued by this stranger’s passion.
Though The Heart’s Invisible Furies is new to the U.S., it was published in the U.K. and elsewhere in 2016. Inspired by Ireland’s Equal Rights Marriage Referendum, Boyne utilizes the story of Cyril Avery to represent how his country managed to change dramatically over a short span of time.
The book begins when Cyril’s birth mother, Catherine Goggin, is cast out of her hometown of Goleen, Ireland, as a teenage mother in 1945. She is publicly shamed by the town priest for being pregnant so young, which provides the context for how conservative Ireland was in those days. Banished, she makes her way to Dublin where she befriends Sean MacIntyre, who takes pity on the young, visibly pregnant woman and invites her to live with him and his roommate, Jack Smoot. It doesn’t take Goggin long to realize that the two men are secretly lovers, foreshadowing the way same-sex love is obscured then revealed to sometimes fatal consequences over the course of the novel.
Cyril is adopted by two well-to-do Irish citizens when he is young: an arrogant government worker, Charles, and his reluctantly renowned wife, Maude, a chain-smoking female chauvinist author. (To give you a sense of their personalities, they name Cyril after their beloved spaniel.) They incessantly remind him that he should call them his “adoptive parents,” and think of his time in their home as more of an “eighteen-year tenancy” because he’s not really family. They insist he call them by their first names instead of mother and father.
Cyril has a secret: He is in love with his best friend, Julian Woodbead. Cyril describes himself, and Julian, thus:
But for all that we had, for all the luxury to which we were accustomed, we were both denied love, and this deficiency would be scorched into our future lives like an ill-considered tattoo inscribed on the buttocks after a drunken night out, leading each of us inevitably toward isolation and disaster.
Descriptive phrases such as this fill every page of this novel. It is difficult to find flaws in the writing, the characterization, or the plot. There are two major achievements in the book: With intricate narrative precision, The Heart’s Invisible Furies cuts to the heart of what family is, how it is chosen, and how it endures. And it is charming and funny, even as it dives down from the precipice of endearing humor into the very specific ironies and cruelties of real life. When Cyril talks to Julian about sex, for example, his childlike reaction to sex is both hilarious and descriptive: “…he took great delight in describing in detail actions that to me seemed not just unpleasant and unsanitary, but possibly criminal.”
If there is one thing that could strike a reader as implausible, it is that for large swaths of this nearly 600-page novel, Cyril is not even the slightest bit curious about the identity of his birth mother. Adopted children may experience this as ringing true, but I found this lack of interest odd, even for a wonderfully quirky protagonist and narrator. But we have a period of 60 years, up until 2015, for his life to unfold—and that it does, in a careful, exquisite way.
Over that span of time, Cyril is also understandably distracted by life: there are kidnappings; fatal beatings; harrowing nights of lust and sentimental triumphs; grimacing, lethal pimps and petite, lovely boys whose spirits are nearly crushed by the heft of sex trafficking. When he finds the love of his life again, more than halfway through the novel, he describes him in foreboding terms: “His cheeks were sunken, as were his eyes, and a dark oval of purple-red sent a hideous bruise along his chin and down his neckline. A line came in my mind, something that Hannah Arendt had once said about the poet Auden: that life had manifested the heart’s invisible furies on his face.”
Boyne writes of the shame others make of homosexuality, bound by the arbitrary rules of the Catholic Church, in a homophobic society that does not improve so much as transform from blatant institutionally accepted bias to individually expressed prejudice. He explores how shame is equally meted out against unwed teenage mothers like Goggin and closeted gay men like Cyril — the deep sadness, angst, and resilience that life’s changes can require of us. His characters are cinematically rendered, with a deft, decadent wit that will make you laugh aloud at least once. Searing heartbreak; loneliness; a quest for internal and external redemption, solace, and contentment are all there in The Heart’s Invisible Furies.
Cyril finds love, and after a number of sad departures from his old friends and lives, finds himself out in New York City, visiting with young men dying from AIDS when his misfortune strikes again. It sets him on a course back to Ireland where life continues—as it is wont to do—to surprise and open him up further to himself. On nearly every page there is some witticism that Boyne offers Cyril—usually in reaction to his sexuality or as others react and he informs them after they’ve embarrassed themselves that he is, indeed, “one of the queers.” Mrs. Goggin returns to us as a force to be reckoned with in a tea room that Cyril visits over the years, and Boyne instills in us the hope, longing, and yearning of a little boy who wants to belong to someone.
The Heart’s Invisible Furies is as much a multicultural epic of Ireland’s social transformation as Yaa Gyasi’s Homegoing is an exploration the intricate tentacles of slavery over time and into the modern era. Boyne’s author bio suggested that of the many books Boyne has written this was his most ambitious. It is the most affecting, beautiful, and memorable novel I have read in some time, transporting me into worlds as dreadful as some are delightful. Turns out that lovely anonymous woman at BEA was 100 percent correct.