Thursday 27 April 2017

Irish saga full of fury

John Boyne returns with another swipe at the clergy in a far-fetched story packed with comedy and tragedy, and told with his trademark panache

Compulsive: the new book by John Boyne, author of The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas, is more notable for its gusto than its elegance
Compulsive: the new book by John Boyne, author of The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas, is more notable for its gusto than its elegance
The Heart's Invisible Furies by John Boyne

John Boland

The furies of the book's title may be invisible, but from the outset of this mammoth novel, author John Boyne's own furies are clearly visible.

The depravities and cruelties of the Irish Catholic clergy were already to the fore in his last novel, A History of Loneliness (2014), the main character of which, Fr Odran Yates, recalled of his Terenure College schooldays: "When I think of some of the beatings I took in that school, it's a wonder I ever got out of the place alive."

In a newspaper article published that year, Boyne wrote that "the Catholic priesthood blighted my youth and the youth of people like me".

That was in the 1980s when Boyne was growing up gay in Dublin, but at the start of his new novel, narrator Cyril's mother is having her life blighted in West Cork four decades earlier, as a loathsome priest denounces the teenager to a packed congregation for the sin of getting pregnant.

"An ignorant wee slut" with a "fat belly" and "filthy face" are among the venomous remarks he hurls before banishing her from the parish, and already the reader senses that nuance, subtlety and understatement are not going to be the book's main selling points - I lost count of the number of times "dirty queer" is snarled at Cyril as he progresses from boyhood into manhood, middle age and beyond.

Yet there's as much comedy as tragedy in a saga that spans 70 years and takes in Cyril's childhood as adopted son of posh Dublin parents (stepfather Charles a banking rogue, stepmother Maude an esteemed novelist), his boyhood crush on the charismatic Julian, his clandestine couplings with strangers, and later meaningful experiences in foreign cities.

Boyne is an expert storyteller, as anyone will know who read The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas, the young person's novel that brought him global fame in 2006, and the new book is compulsively readable, if more notable for its gusto than its elegance. And yet, for large swathes of it, I didn't believe what I was reading.

This may simply be due to the fact that I'm older than the 45-year-old author and thus was around when he wasn't, but I didn't believe the 1952 scene in which the headmaster of Belvedere College tells the assembled pupils that the solicitor father of one of them has "represented most of Ireland's top criminals in recent years, including many of your own fathers". Really?

Nor did I believe that in 1959 two 14-year-old boys would be served pints in both the Dáil tea rooms and the Palace Bar or that, in the latter premises, they would be talking bawdily to two respectable teenage girls they've just met about intimate bodily parts and functions and sexual desires. Nor that Cyril would say "F*** you" to one of the girls at her dislike of his announcement that "I need a piss".

I didn't believe, either, that in 1959 Cyril would talk so frankly to a priest in confession about his urges and practices ("I have a right go at myself" and "Do you know what a blowjob is, Father?") that the priest would instantly expire (there are a lot of deaths, including murders, in this novel).

Just as unlikely is the 1966 scene in the Department of Education, where Cyril now works and where one of his middle-aged male colleagues announces in front of his elderly female boss that "a big cock makes all the difference, don't you think?" And when their minister is arrested after being "sucked off" in his car by a teenage boy, his office staff mock him in such explicit sexual terms that they would have been instantly sacked.

As for the O'Connell Street scene in which Cyril is about to be arrested for a homosexual act when Nelson's Pillar is suddenly blown up, killing both the arresting garda and Cyril's prissy would-be girlfriend - does the author expect us to forget that no one died in that 1966 explosion?

One can only assume that he's having too much fun with the picaresque adventures of Cyril to bother about such trifling matters, though by now the reader has only reached page 250, with 380 pages still to come. Where can the story go from here?

Well, first to Amsterdam in 1980, where Cyril unknowingly meets an old friend of his birth mother and also begins a relationship with Bastiaan, the doctor who's to become the love of his life, even though at this stage of their relationship, Bastiaan has cause to wonder "What's wrong with Ireland? Are you all just f***ing nuts over there?"

Then, in 1987 (the book proceeds at seven-year intervals), Cyril and Bastiaan are in New York, where volunteer hospital visitor Cyril unexpectedly encounters boyhood friend Julian, a lifelong heterosexual enthusiast who's nonetheless now dying of Aids.

But the book is full of such chance, indeed incredible, encounters, not least Cyril's random meetings down through the years with birth-mother Catherine, neither of them knowing the identity of the other, though it's inevitable that they'll finally discover the truth, becoming reconciled in the brave new world of Irish sexual equality.

In a novel that's teeming with storylines and characters, Boyne juggles them all with considerable panache, and even if the reader's patience is sometimes sorely tested (a good editor might have pruned it of a hundred or more pages) it's hard to put it down.

That's largely because of Cyril himself. "You're such a shit", the woman whom he'd abandoned two decades earlier tells him near the end, and she's right about that, but he's also the most companionable and engaging of narrators. As such, the book succeeds in being much more than just a vehicle for the author's social concerns.

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