The Heart’s Invisible Furies by John Boyne

At nearly 600 pages, Ireland native John Boyne’s 10th novel for adults is what one might call epic. Or, to use another tread-worn phrase, sweeping. Spanning seven decades, from 1945 to 2015, the door stopper of a book checks every box when it comes to literary themes: a young protagonist’s coming of age, Great Love found and lost, hard-won triumph over prejudice, and so on.

Yet despite its ambitious scope, The Heart’s Invisible Furies also narrows in on something very specific. On a molecular level, it traces one man’s life and struggles across two continents and three countries. At the same time, it also aims to chart the course of Ireland’s transformation from a bulwark of conservatism ruled by the ironfisted influence of the Catholic Church to the first country in the world to legalize same-sex marriage via the popular vote.

The experiment works on both counts — mostly.

Boyne structures Invisible Furies in seven-year increments. The first begins in 1945, just as World War II is ending. The whopper of an opening sentence sets the stage for what’s to come: “Long before we discovered that he had fathered two children by two different women … 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.”

From there, in a thoroughly captivating chapter, we learn of our protagonist Cyril Avery’s humble beginnings. He is born out of wedlock to a 16-year-old girl who, for fear of bringing shame to the family, is banished from her home. She flees to Dublin and shacks up with a pair of gents to start anew, one of whom she met on the train on the way over. After giving birth, she promptly hands over the baby to “a little hunchbacked Redemptorist nun” as soon as the umbilical cord is snipped.

Somewhat to his detriment, Cyril is then adopted by a pair of unlikely guardians. Charles is a philandering banker soon to be jailed for tax fraud, while Maude — a cold, chain-smoking novelist who shuns fame, not to mention a readership — comes off like a bizarre hybrid of Ayn Rand and Anaïs Nin. Incessantly reminding Cyril that he’s “not a real Avery,” the two are the opposite of modern-day helicopter parents.

Still, Cyril pushes on. At age 7, he meets Julian Woodbead, the posh and infinitely charismatic son of Charles’ lawyer, Max. By 14, the two are roommates at boarding school, sparking not only a deep connection, but also — at least for Cyril — a lifelong obsession that extends far beyond the “normal” realm of friendship.

Herein lies the crux of the book. Cyril, it turns out, has feelings for men during a time when such things are not to be discussed, let alone acted upon. But act upon them he does, first as a sexually repressed teenager exploring his forbidden urges in secret, then in dark alleyways and grubby bathroom stalls as an adult in his 20s and 30s.

His partners, nearly always strangers, run into the hundreds. His escapades and search for true recognition take him from Dublin to a more liberal Amsterdam, where he embarks on his first real relationship, to New York City, and back to Ireland. On each of these stops over the stretch of many years, Cyril not only encounters prejudice — some of which turns deadly — but also gets embroiled in quite a few fiascos (hint: one involves his birthday suit and an altar).

Cinematic and commercial, The Heart’s Invisible Furies makes for entertaining reading. Boyne — author of the internationally bestselling The Boy in the Striped Pajamas, a 2006 children’s book slotted to be made into a film, a play, a ballet and an opera — certainly knows how to ramp up tension and manipulate readers’ emotions in scenes ripe with over-the-top coincidences and dramatic flourishes. One involving Cyril and his boyfriend Bastiaan, a rent boy named Ignac, and Ignac’s drunk john is particularly riveting, although foreshadowing clues and parallels to an earlier scene in the book are obvious.

There’s humor here too, though how many times you chuckle might depend on your attitude toward repetitive dialogue as shtick and not-so-subtle wordplay. Boyne’s tendency toward camp and raunchiness is big. After all, he dedicated the novel to John Irving, and the similarities show. Any opportunity to deliver a forehead-slapping punch line, Boyne takes it.

But perhaps the most sincere and powerful emotion in the book — and what elicits the book’s truest reward — is rage. Boyne’s takedown of the church — its intolerance, hypocrisy and deceit — resonates throughout, as does his anger at his country’s hatred of “Nancy-boys” and condemnation of homosexuality. Still, there’s poignancy in the book’s ending. By winding down Cyril’s life in 2015 — the year the Equal Rights Marriage Referendum was adopted in Ireland — Boyne shows just how far Ireland has come and proves that even the most unlikely change or forward movement is never impossible.

From post-World War II and the rise of the IRA, to the AIDS crisis and Reagan-era fallout, to the present day where the technology reigns supreme, The Heart’s Invisible Furies covers it all. Cyril’s journey, in many ways, comes full circle, too. As often happens with age, he suffers his allotted portion of unbearable loss, reunites with old acquaintances (though mum’s the word as to whom), and finds some small semblance of peace in his choices — clarity, too.

“I look back at my life and I don’t understand very much of it,” Cyril says in a moment of self-reflection we can all relate to. “It seems like it would have been so simple now to have been honest with everyone. … But it didn’t feel like that at the time.”

Originally ran in the San Francisco Chronicle (November 27, 2017)

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