John Boyne is angry with the Catholic Church. His latest offering – the mighty tome that is The Heart’s Invisible Furies – feels like a cathartic exploration of that anger. He gets to it right away too, emphasising the often-cited hypocrisy of the church in his brutal opening sentence: “Long before we discovered that he had fathered two children by two different women… Father James Monroe stood on the altar of the Church of Our Lady, Star of the Sea, in the parish of Goleen, West Cork, and denounced my mother as a whore.”
Thus begins the tale of Cyril Avery (though he is not a real Avery, as his adoptive parents are at pains to highlight), a gay man in 20th century Dublin, trying to find his place in a world that tells him that what he is does not exist. “Fury” can refer to both anger and strength, and in the context of this story, the title could be referring to both.
The book follows Cyril’s life, spanning decades, continents and attitudes. In the first section, he narrates his mother’s story from inside the womb. She – sixteen year old Catherine Goggin – has been exiled from her village and her family, cast out for being pregnant in an age where protection from shame came before compassion for family. A few months later Catherine gives birth to her son in Dublin, surrounded by dead and dying men, and hands the baby over to a hunchbacked Redemptorist nun to be adopted, setting Cyril on his journey through life. (Catherine will later get her revenge on the clergy during a delicious stand-off with a priest in the Dáil Éireann tearoom. Yet despite the near constant negative depiction of priests, we will also be reminded that not all who are called priests are cruel – the kindest of the Goggin brothers hopes to become one after all.)
We next meet Cyril as an endearingly innocent seven year old with hideously indifferent adoptive parents to whom appearance is everything. His adoptive father, in preparation for a dinner party with the jury of his upcoming fraud trial, tells him, “I left a list of things we do as father and son on your bed. Did you memorise it?”. The state of their relationship is plainly implied.
It is at this age that Cyril will meet Julien, the boy he will fall in love and share his life with in an unexpected fashion. There is much quick wit and some genuinely laugh out loud moments during the Irish chapter of Cyril’s life, including the threat of “My mother is in the Legion of Mary”, and farcical moments including Julien’s kidnap at the hands of the IRA and another character’s death by a falling Nelson’s Pillar. But the tone changes when Cyril begins to realise his sexuality is not one which can be accepted in his country.
There is a brief reference to aversion therapy, carried out by a doctor who explains, “There are no homosexuals in Ireland” before carrying out the cruellest of supposed cures. Uprooting to Amsterdam and then America, Cyril’s story takes a more political turn, exploring 1980s’ attitudes to HIV and delivering the biggest shock of the book.
Various characters have their entrances and exits throughout the meandering tale, as it is with life. Littered throughout Cyril’s aging are chance meetings with his birth mother, where he doesn’t know who she is, and when he doesn’t remember any previous meeting.
But fate is at play, as it so often is in such epics, and the conclusion soothes any previous outrage.
Ultimately, The Heart’s Invisible Furies says much about the traditional and changing attitudes of the Irish people. Written after the country’s referendum on gay marriage, when citizens stood against the teaching of the church, it is a reminder of new attitudes, and of the bravery of those who speak out to beckon change. As one character surmises, “What’s wrong with Ireland? Don’t you want each other to be happy?” A funny and raucous tale this may be, but Boyne also sends a hard-hitting message that should leave the reader questioning the validity of age-held attitudes. Quite simply, this book is a triumph.
The Heart’s Invisible Furies was published in February 2017 by Doubleday Books.