The Heart’s Invisible Furies by John Boyne, Doubleday, 2017, ISBN 085-752-348-1, 591pp
John Boyne is an Irish writer. Perhaps I should be ashamed to admit that I did not know of him in spite of his having published several novels, including a few for what are euphemistically referred to as “younger readers”. For those of us who might qualify as “older readers” there are ten published novels and “The Heart’s Invisible Furies” is the latest of these. I picked this book up at Moruya Books. I have to say that I am finding that I am having a pretty good enjoyment rate from the books that Janice is choosing to stock at Moruya Books. I cannot say that every one sits at the literary pinnacle but “The Heart’s Invisible Furies” certainly is a winner. It is one of the funniest books I have read for a long time. It is not funny in the comedic sense of that word but rather it is funny in the way Boyne creates his characters and makes them play together. Many of the scenes he describes are both completely unlikely and absolutely possible at the same time. Equally, some of them are completely, agonisingly and horrifyingly possible.
But the book is not, I think, intended to be a humorous book. I interpret it as a book about prejudice. My copy of the book is sub-titled “Who is Cyril Avery?” and this subtitle must surely be the result of an over enthusiastic marketing team who, in my opinion, may not have actually read the book. The blurb on the back cover says that “Cyril Avery is not a real Avery - or at least that’s what his adoptive parents tell him. And he never will be. But if he isn’t a real Avery, then who is he?” Cyril Avery is the hero and we follow him from his mother’s pregnancy in 1945 to 2015 when he is seventy. He knows both what and who he is from an early age: he is a gay man living in an Ireland that until recently was consumed with its unique and oppressive combination of prejudice and hypocrisy.
We follow Cyril Avery through a series of friendships and relationships as he travels around the world. Boyne does a very god job of helping us understand why his hero makes the decisions he makes. He makes us feel angry at the confused attitudes that people had (and unfortunately perhaps still have) toward gays. And he makes you understand the helplessness of someone in Avery’s position in dealing with bigoted prejudice. But it is the mark of a good writer to carry his or her reader through these challenges and to leave the reader a better person at the end of it. John Boyne succeeds in this with this book. It is quite long at almost 600 pages. I read it in a week and, unusually for me, it is a book that I might read again if only to savour some of the beautiful Irish expressions. My favourite is the reference to someone as a “worthless article”. My daughter-in-law is from Limerick and I was able to persuade her to say this with a genuine Irish lilt and when she did Cyril Avery’s mother came quite to life in my mind.
The book also tells the story of the shift in Irish attitudes over the last seven or eight decades. That shift has taken the country from intolerance to a positive referendum on gay marriage. Cyril Avery lives through this shift in social mores and norms. I shall need, I think, to go through the other novels in Boyne’s oeuvre. One of these is called “The boy in the striped pyjamas” of which there is a film adaptation from 2008 (that I seem to recall though I did not know it was Boyne). But in the meantime I am glad I picked this book up at random and even more glad that it is not still on my pile of “books to read”.