It’s been a month since I finished reading John Boyne’s latest novel, The Heart’s Invisible Furies, and I haven’t quite gotten over it yet.
A radical statement, about a novel? Perhaps, but Boyne’s story and characters have remained with me and popped into my head many times over the past month, and the affection I feel for his protagonist, Cyril, is akin to something I would feel for a kind man I really knew. I was invested in Cyril’s story from the minute I met him, and Boyne succeeded in gently bringing me through the moments of joy and grief in his life as we would go through them with a dear friend.
When the novel opens, it’s 1945, and we’re introduced to Catherine Goggin, a girl of sixteen, publicly banished from her community during Sunday morning Mass for the crime of being unmarried and pregnant. Catherine flees from her native West Cork to Dublin, and the novel tells the story of her son, whose adoptive parents have named him Cyril Avery.
Boyne perfectly captures the Irish national character and how it developed from the 1940s right through to the 21st Century. The culture of judgement and gossip, the iron grip of the Catholic Church on society, the tension between Republicans and moneyed ‘West Brits’, and the demonisation of gay people and ‘fallen’ women are all threads that are woven seamlessly into the story. Equally, during Cyril’s years living abroad, Boyne tactfully and gracefully explores such difficult subjects as AIDS, sex work, and the impact of the Holocaust. At no point does it feel like he’s trying to cover too much. It’s all effortlessly gathered into the trajectory of Cyril’s life. This is all done while also being, at times, riotously funny. The storytelling style is a perfect balance of lighthearted, satirical, and gut-wrenchingly personal.
Cyril is far from perfect. He makes mistakes, acts selfishly, and pays dearly for it. His imperfections serve to endear him further to the reader by humanising him, and it’s easy to see how someone with his experiences could make the choices he does, even when they hurt him and others. His relationships with his best friend Julian, his adoptive parents Charles and Maude, and the other people who become his unconventional family, are explored carefully and lovingly. It seems appropriate in a novel that is as much about Ireland as it is about Cyril, that characters accidentally run into one another, or into mutual friends, while on the opposite side of the world. The Irish have a particular talent for this. Indeed, the frequency with which Cyril accidentally encounters Catherine Goggin, from his teenage years right into his sixties, leaves the reader desperately hoping and wishing that they will eventually discover their true relationship to one another.
Without giving too much away, the novel’s ending is perfectly satisfying. All the threads are nicely tied up and the dreadful hurts suffered by the characters are healed by improvements in Irish society and by their attitudes of kindness toward one another. Boyne achieves all this while managing to utterly avoid over-sentimentality and cliche.
For anyone who has grown up in Ireland, particularly anyone who has had the benefit of seeing the progress made over many decades, The Heart’s Invisible Furies is an essential read. For anyone still hurt by the years of oppression and cruelty inflicted on them in Ireland, this beautiful story could even provide a space to heal. Immediately after the successful repeal of the 8th amendment, it feels like the perfect time to reread it, safe in the knowledge that the outcome of Ireland’s last two referenda will ensure that no gay person or woman in this country will ever again have to endure stories like those endured by Boyne’s characters. The novel is a memorial to those who did.