Some books you can knock out a review in a moment or two after reading them.
Others take time to digest and consider and reflect on. And this beautiful, heart-aching, visceral, funny, tragic novel is one of the latter. But as yesterday was the International Day Against Homophobia Biphobia Intersexism and Transphobia – should not every day be against those things? And the use of the suffix “phobia” irks me because this not not about phobia, it’s about bigotry and bullying. But I digress. As yesterday marked the International Day against Homophobia, Biphobia, Intersexism and Transphobia, it seemed an apt time to bring this review into the light.
Because this novel is an absolute gem!
It is a delight and treasure, all the more wonderful because my hopes for it were not massive: I’d only read The Boy In the Striped Pyjamas by Boyne before and had not found it as powerful or compelling as its content matter should have been. The Heart’s Invisible Furies, however, is a tour de force.
We have here an episodic and picaresque Bildungsroman following the life of Cyril Avery – adopted by the Averys and never a real Avery. We see Cyril every seven years of his life, starting as he is growing inside the womb of Catherine Goggin and ending as a seventy year old man. Over these visits to him, we glimpse the the horrors of the Irish attitude to homosexuality and very viscerally the violence that homophobic attitudes generate – and other forms of bigotry as Catherine Goggin’s denouncement and expulsion from her rural home in Goleen in Cork in 1945 for extra-marital sex is as bigoted as the homophobia we see. In fact, I would have liked to have seen more of Catherine Goggin: her flightly, wilful, self-deceptive, stubborn self-recreation in Dublin was a tour-de-force and, whilst she recurred and was significant throughout the seventy years, I found hat I missed having her as my point-of-view character.
Nor does Boyne shy away from the privations forced on the gay community in Ireland and the lengths that they were forced to go to in order to meet their needs, or in order to hide or “cure” them. The tawdriness of anonymous meetings in the parks and toilets and alleys is not shied away from and Boyne does not glamorise it in any way. At no point in his time in Ireland do we see any stable, happy or open homosexual relationship: the atmosphere – which strikes the reader as wholly authentic and toxic – forces the encounters to be unsatisfying and purely physical. There is a clear political message being driven home here and a religious one.
Boyne also explores the fallibility of memory and recollections: as characters meet and leave and meet again, we see that memories differ. Who showed whom their penis first? When does a lie become so powerful it becomes a truth and when is the truth insurmountably present. Whereas Catherine could reinvent herself successfully, Cyril’s attempts to fit into a society that demonised his sexuality and his attempts even to marry and deny his sexuality fail time and time again in the face of the single inalienable fact that Cyril is gay. And reality and fiction bleed together as we get cameos of Brendan Behan conversing somewhat incongruously with the fourteen year old Cyril and best friend Julian and somewhat lecherously the girls they had gone there with; a Charles Haughey haunts the tearooms of Dáil Éireann, run by Catherine Goggin.
Despite this, however, there are moments of sheer joyful humour in Boyne’s writing – a humour which never jeopardises the pathos of the situation or the humanity of Cyril’s portrayal – in fact highlighting them both. His visit to a doctor who tries to cure his homosexuality by stabbing his testicles every time he mentions a male name; the priest’s (coincidental) death when he hears Cyril’s confession convincing Cyril that his sexuality had killed him; the introduction and teasing of Cyril Two. Very few modern novelists can weave together such pathos and such humour so skilfully.
The novel moves with an epic pace as Cyril flees Dublin and Julian Woodbead, the subject of his obsessions since he was seven, and his failed attempt to marry Julian’s sister. He re-emerges in Amsterdam and later in New York, apparently happily in a relationship with Bastiaan, a doctor. His escape from the tyranny of the Catholic Church’s hold is a release but life remains unkind: his sexuality remains the subject of bigotry and violence; he becomes embroiled in a shady underground world of prostitution and violence. the novel encompasses vast societal changes as prejudices lessen, the grip of the Church relaxes, homosexuality is legalised, HIV re-ignites old suspicions, gay marriage is legalised. And at no point in these seismic events do we lose Cyril’s voice or sight of the human and emotional responses to world events.
The novel abounds in coincidences and unexpected returns and a happy ending which, in other hands, would have felt forced and artificial and mawkish. Here, Cyril’s desperate attempts to hang on to life and love and himself were so awful and desperate that I absolutely accepted the end of the novel without a hint of my more accustomed snideness and cynicism.
The Heart’s Invisible Furies is epic in scope, human in sensibility; it is a joy to read; it prompts tears and laughter and love; it inspires hope in the power of love.
It is a delight: intricately plotted and structured and full of warm and convincing characters.
Publisher: Black Swan
Date: 14 December 2017