A History of Loneliness by John Boyne
Published February 3, 2015
A powerful novel about silence, complicity, and guilt, John Boyne’s A History of Loneliness is a fictionalized, unflinching account of the Irish Catholic Church practice of covering up allegations of abuse among its ranks by transferring abusive priests to another parish, where they were likely to re-offend, instead of reporting them to the gardaí (Irish police). In doing so, the Church opted to place the survival of the institution above the safety of its parishioners.
As he does in both The Absolutist and The Heart’s Invisible Furies, Boyne opts to tell the story from the perspective of a man looking back on his life. Each chapter is set during a different year of Father Odran Yates’ life, but the story unfolds non-chronologically, shifting back and forth through time. A History of Loneliness spans Odran’s early family life and his seminary schooling during the 1960s and 70s through to twenty-first century accusations made against the Catholic Church and Odran’s recognition of the role his silence has played in allowing the abuse to continue.
Odran is a sympathetic character, a man pushed towards the priesthood by his mother but who genuinely believes in his vocation. Like some of Boyne’s other protagonists, Odran has a boyish quality of innocence that isn’t quite extinguished until the novel draws to a close. Although Odran is a good man and has never abused another individual, he is not wholly innocent either. Boyne masterfully depicts the feeling of melancholy and heavy guilt that hang over Odran’s later life as he comes to terms with the consequences of his inaction and willful blindness. I found Odran’s plight incredibly moving and felt for the character, even as a part of me was screaming ‘how could you not do something?!’
“What kind of life was this, I wondered. To what sort of an organization had I dedicated my life? And even as I searched for blame, I knew a darkness was stirring inside me concerning my own complicity, for I had seen things and I had suspected things and I had turned away and done nothing.”
As in The Absolutist, I guessed where the story was going long before the characters themselves did, but Boyne’s guilt-ridden prose and narrative voice are so captivating that it didn’t matter.
As someone who is not Catholic or an Irish citizen, I came to A History of Loneliness as an outsider. I was aware, of course, of the history of abuse and scandal that has plagued the Catholic Church in Ireland, but I had no personal connection to the material. I imagine this haunting novel is infinitely more poignant for those who have a deeper understanding of the Catholic Church and its impact on Ireland, but even without that personal history, A History of Loneliness is a compelling and sympathetic account of a troubled time in Ireland’s history, and its message about being complicit through silence is one that I won’t soon forget.