With the title “A History of Loneliness” it felt like I had to read John Boyne’s novel for this blog. It also feels like this has been such a strong year for Irish fiction including books that I’ve read from Colin Barrett, Donal Ryan, Liz Nugent, Audrey Magee, Eimear McBride and Colm Toibin. This novel ranks highly amongst these excellent Irish books and a novel can’t get more Irish than this one because of the themes it includes. Told from the perspective of a priest named Odran Yates, the novel moves back and forth between essential periods of his life from his childhood with his troubled aspiring-actor father to his early training/scholarship as an assistant to the Pope to his near retirement in the midst of the Irish church’s crisis over priests brought to trial due to charges of paedophilia. This novel encompasses and explores themes about the country which we’re all familiar with, but it casts such a critical, unsparing eye upon the entire culture that it feels totally fresh and makes for inspiring, compulsive reading.
One of the aspects of Irish life the novel probes is a general culture of intolerance. Prejudice against different religions, races and sexualities abound in many scenes with dialogue which keys into underlying attitudes of hatred. When Odran’s father leaves his job he comments “I never liked working for a Jewman.” In Odran’s childhood women’s life options are severely limited when they become wives and mothers, whereas men are given license to pursue their dreams no matter how impractical (an inequality reinforced by the church): “Dad was given leave to do exactly as he pleased and Mam had no choice but to put up with it.” Odran’s nephew is dismissed by the priest as nothing but a queer despite his status as a world-famous novelist. However, Odran attempts to take steps to correct this. At one point, when a mother brings her son to him in a panic because he’s taken a boyfriend, Odran advises her to respect that this is the way her son is. However, he sees little change in people’s attitudes reflecting that “there was precious little compassion to be found in the hearts of anyone in those days, particularly when it came to the lives and choices of women, and in that way, if not others, Ireland has hardly changed in forty years.”
A monumental change in attitude this novel does record is the transition in general attitudes towards the church. For many years many turned a blind eye to the way priests abused their power to sexually molest children because people were too frightened or blindly faithful or incapable of challenging the church’s authority. When accusations are finally made public and the media openly challenge the religious authorities, the general respect Father Odran received where people on a train would freely offer him food turns to a seething contempt where he can be openly attacked in a café with no one intervening. Far from seeing the accounts of child abuse as isolated incidents, people begin to view it as a conspiracy that maintains a power hold over the population through intimidation and secrecy akin to the mafia and there is a mounting desire to expel the Catholic church from the country altogether. The novel explores this change in attitude from a very personal point of view which calls into question the ways we let the general attitudes of our culture influence our thoughts and actions.
The overwhelming conflicts of the country are all internalized by Odran so that his recollections and reflections show his transition towards accepting uncomfortable truths. He comments that “I am a man for nostalgia; it is a curse on me sometimes.” His memories lock him into believing things were a certain way, yet the truth about his past is called into question when he’s confronted about what he really knew and experienced. This is a man hemmed in by a solitude fortified by religion which is meant to be enlightening, but which conversely shelters him from reality. It’s a long, difficult examination of the soul where a good-intentioned but damaged man must come to understand the degrees to which he’s culpable of perpetuating lies about himself and the institution he represents.
“A History of Loneliness” is a skilfully constructed novel that produces a big emotional impact. The plot gradually builds so that I felt distress and fear for the well-realized characters which compelled me to read on at a pace. The story also incorporates a compelling perspective about the controversial circumstances surrounding the death of Pope John Paul I. It feels like it would have been too easy for Boyne to inhabit the gay novelist character in this novel. Instead, he tells it from the perspective of the well meaning priest. In this way he intelligently sifts through the issues he addresses from the point of view of someone caught in the middle of them. This novel is motivated by a justified anger. It’s a declaration that we should say what needs to be said rather than submitting to those who intimidate us into keeping silent. It’s a statement that we cannot simply accept that things are the way they are or we’ll be caged in solitude. It’s a truly heart-felt and extremely rewarding read.