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Browsing the displays in Waterstones a few weeks ago, Jack read out the opening paragraph of The Heart’s Invisible Furies:

Long before we discovered that he had fathered two children by two different women, one in Drimoleague and one in Clonakilty, 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.

The consummate opening paragraph, what reader would be happy closing the page and putting that book back on the sales table? It was on the counter at the cashier’s desk before I could say “OMG, that’s SO Irish, we HAVE to get it!”.

The Heart's Invisible Furies, John Boyne

Synopsis of The Heart’s Invisible Furies by John Boyne

That opening chapter goes on to describe the mortifying, public shaming of the narrator’s mother, a 16yr-old girl. She wasn’t the first Irish country girl, nor the last, to find herself pregnant on the wrong side of matrimony and therefore fair game for the vicious, self-righteous admonishment of the Roman Catholic church in Ireland.

And right there, in those opening pages, John Boyne sets out the central theme that follows his characters through 70 years of their lives.

From the moment she gets (literally) kicked out of the church by Father Monroe, we follow Catherine as she boards the bus to Dublin without so much as a backward glance at Goleen, and begins a new life. Encountering Seán on the bus, Catherine inveigles her way into sharing a small flat with him and his friend until after the baby is born.

Following a horrific incident, we leave Catherine, and our story moves forward to the life of Cyril Avery, our narrator.

Adopted by Charles and Maude Avery at the age of 7 years, Cyril has a somewhat unconventional childhood. Left almost entirely to his own devices, his adoptive mother Maude Avery, is an author who shuns commercial success and anything even vaguely approaching celebrity status. Chain smoking her way through the creation of her novels, Maude barely leaves the fog of her office to have anything to do with Cyril, behaving almost as if she’s surprised every time she sees him and needs to be reminded of who he is, and why he lives in her home. Meanwhile, his adoptive father reminds him daily that he’s ‘not a real Avery’.

Into this surreal world one day, walks Julian Woodbead, the son of his adoptive father’s lawyer, and Cyril is enamoured from the very first glance:

‘Hello,’ I said, and he glanced up at me and smiled. He had blond hair and piercing blue eyes that captivated me immediately. Perhaps it was because I had been silent for more than a week that my words tumbled out of me like water overflowing a neglected bath.’

The boys head to Cyril’s bedroom where Julian leads the conversation towards the subject of sex and his overwhelming desire to throw himself headlong into its embrace. Cyril, the very embodiment of naivety, tries to keep up with his new friend:

“What’s a pervert?’ I asked.
‘It’s someone who’s a sex maniac,’ he explained.
‘I’m going to be a pervert when I grow up,’ he continued.
‘So am I,’ I said, eager to please. ‘Perhaps we could be perverts together.’
Even as the words came out of my mouth I could tell there was something not quite right about them and the expression on his face, one of disdain combined with mistrust, embarrassed me.
‘I don’t think so,’ he said quickly. ‘That’s not how it works at all. Boys can only be perverts with girls.’
‘Oh,’ I said, disappointed.

The boys proceed to examine each other’s penis to see who has the bigger one and from that day, throughout his adolescent years and into adulthood, Cyril is hopelessly in love with Julian, a love he has to hide from the object of his desires, as well as from the entire world as homosexuality is illegal in Ireland.

We follow Cyril as he navigates life as a closet homosexual, stumbling through enforced heterosexual relationships by day which lead him to some horrendous situations, and satisfying his lust for men by night through a never-ending series of seedy encounters.

Watching from the sidelines as Julian works his way through countless relationships with women, Cyril longs for the day that Julian looks into his eyes and falls into his arms.

My review of The Heart’s Invisible Furies

As the daughter of Irish immigrants, I recognised everything about John Boyne’s descriptions of rural Ireland and the hypocrisy that embodies the Catholic Church and its stronghold over the country and its people.

In many ways, those early chapters were my favourite part of the novel, told so graphically and highlighting the Church’s destructive prejudice against unmarried mothers, homosexuals and anyone who didn’t conform to the strict moral code that they themselves transgressed so flagrantly.

But to say that was my favourite part is not to detract from the rest. Far from it, I was obsessed with this novel. John Boyne’s writing is superb, his dialogue word-perfect, and his characterisation utterly compelling. I laughed, cried, cringed, and recoiled at Cyril’s duplicitous path through life, alternating between sympathy for his plight and fury at his cowardice that led to such devastating outcomes for those around him.

And I seethed at the destructive force of the Catholic faith, from its attitude to sex outside marriage to its disgusting treatment of AIDS sufferers in the 1980s. The hold the Church has on Ireland has kept the country back for centuries, provoked wars, destroyed lives, and created a self-perpetuating circle of suspicion, accusation and hate.

But in between the white knuckle moments, I smiled and laughed at the enduring humour with which the Irish face adversity. I could feel the warmth of Irish eyes emanating from the pages.

Funny, poignant, bewitching and utterly absorbing, I was gutted when I finished The Heart’s Invisible Furies. This will not be the only John Boyne novel I ever read.


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