The Heart’s Invisible Furies by John Boyne
Published August 22, 2017
I went into The Heart’s Invisible Furies entirely blind. I knew it was set in Ireland, I knew by virtue of Rachel recommending it to me that it was probably devastating, and I knew that she had loved it. Rachel’s words carry so much weight for me that I put it on hold at the library without knowing another thing. From the very first page I was hooked! Like A Little Life, it’s a brick-sized book that never feels long. I finished all 580 pages of the hardcover in a matter of days because I COULD NOT PUT IT DOWN. The pace is swift and never drags, the characters are funny, flawed, and engaging, and the tragedy is tempered with a wicked sense of humour that had me literally laughing out loud. I absolutely loved The Heart’s Invisible Furies and know that come December it will be near the top of my list of Best Books Read in 2017.
Told from the first-person perspective of a man looking back on his life, The Heart’s Invisible Furies is a sweeping saga about growing up in twentieth century Ireland as a gay man. The story begins when Cyril’s mother, Catherine Goggin, is denounced by the priest in front of her entire town for becoming pregnant at 16. Forced to leave home, she takes the bus to Dublin, buys a ring in a pawn store, and passes herself off as a war widow to gain employment. Realizing she can’t raise the baby alone, Catherine gives Cyril to a wealthy but eccentric couple who provide for his physical comforts, but constantly remind him growing up that he is not a real Avery. This is a lot funnier than it sounds! Cyril’s life gains focus when he forms a friendship with the glamorous Julian, but as they grow up, Cyril realizes that he feels something more than friendship for Julian.
The first-person narration by Cyril is hilarious, poignant, and even tragic as it deals with the hypocrisy of the Irish Catholic Church, homosexuality in twentieth century Ireland (Cyril is told by a doctor that his romantic and sexual feelings for men don’t mean he’s gay because “there are no homosexuals in Ireland”), adoption, AIDS, and other heavy topics.
As a Canadian I have a very love-hate (okay, I admit it – mostly hate) relationship with our national style of literature, Can Lit. Stylistically it tends to be slower-paced, and consist of character-driven works set in rural areas where the landscape can mirror the emotions and emptiness of the main character. I’m exaggerating, but honestly not by much. Until I picked up The Heart’s Invisible Furies, I hadn’t given much thought to the national literature of other countries.
From the opening of the book I had flashbacks, not to the content, but to the tone of Angela’s Ashes, a book I read probably fifteen years ago. Both use black humor as a coping mechanism for tragedy, both involve criticism of the Catholic Church, and although The Heart’s Invisible Furies is fiction, it’s told from the perspective of the central character, Cyril, looking back on his life in a way that feels a little like a memoir, with a tone that is blunt, funny, and sad all at once. If this is characteristic of Irish Lit as a whole, I’ll definitely be looking for more recommendations! I can see how this particular sense of humour may not translate for all readers, but it was right up my alley.
One of the things I loved most about this book was its characters. Boyne doesn’t shy away from making his characters flawed, and not just superficially. Cyril makes massive errors in judgment, some of which quite literally change the lives of everyone around him, and yet we still root for him, because he does so without cruelty of intent. I like to think that I would make different decisions in his place, but I can see why Cyril makes the decisions he does, that he errs from a place of searching for acceptance in a country and culture that doesn’t accept him for who he is.
Although male characters figure prominently, Boyne writes some exceedingly capable women. Catherine Goggins, Cyril’s self-reliant, yet kind birth mother who he unknowingly meets in different contexts throughout the novel is exceptionally determined. Another favourite character is Alice, Julian’s academically inclined and witty sister.
My one criticism is that the book relies heavily on coincidence, or on fate, however you choose to view it. Even in a smaller city like Dublin, it stretches belief that Catherine Goggins would, unknowingly, run into Cyril time and time again, so fair warning that you will have to suspend your disbelief early in order to let The Heart’s Invisible Furies really work its magic.
With that one caveat though, I wholeheartedly loved The Heart’s Invisible Furies, and will definitely be reading more by John Boyne in the future.