The Heart's Invisible Furies, John Boyne. Review by Dale Boyer
Note: a version of this review appeared formerly in The Gay & Lesbian Review Worldwide
John Boyne has published nine novels in Ireland, and a number of books for young adults, including the recent best-seller, The Boy in the Striped Pajamas, but, up to this point, his work was unknown to me. His readings apparently attract large crowds, which is perhaps why the jacket copy of The Heart's Invisible Furies is so coy about its subject matter: namely, the life of a gay man in Ireland from the 1950s to the present. It would be interesting to know whether this reticence was a decision of the Irish, or the US, publishers. Indeed, looking at the book, one would never know it involved gay themes, and this is unfortunate, because it means readers might overlook potentially one of the most mainstream gay novels in a long time -- that is, at least until the book becomes as popular as it undoubtedly is destined to become.
The target in Boyne's crosshairs is Irish attitudes toward homosexuality, and the historically harsh repression there by the Catholic Church. The narrator's mother, in fact, is almost literally thrown out of the church in the opening scenes for being an unwed mother. This unfortunate (and indignation-arousing) plight leads her to Dublin where, eventually, she takes up residence with a welcoming gay man and his partner. Of course, she doesn't know the two are gay at first (this is, after all, the 1950s in Ireland, so the relationship is very covert). However, when the two are viciously assaulted by one of the men's fathers, there can be no further doubt. This is precisely -- both literally and metaphorically -- the moment when the narrator, Cyril, comes into the world.
This scene: Cyril literally being born in the midst of a gay-bashing, gives a good sense of the overall style, and also the excesses of, the book. Boyne is obviously a devotee of John Irving (The World According to Garp is mentioned, in Dutch, as a time reference within the novel, and the novel itself is actually dedicated to Irving himself. Calling The Heart's Invisible Furies a gay World According to Garp may be going too far, and yet, the comparison is apt in many ways.
After Cyril is born, he is adopted by a very well-to-do family, The Averys, and thus begins his journey through life. Cyril's adoptive parents are humorous in the way only the most stereotypically English characters can be. Cyril's adoptive mother, the allegedly famous novelist, Maude Avery, is hilariously self-involved. When he asks her for information about his birth, she replies:
"For heaven's sake, Cyril…that was seven years ago. How on earth would I recall? Your mother was a girl, I know that much."
"Don't you even remember her name?"
"It was probably Mary. Aren't most Irish country girls named Mary?"
The "Great First Love" of Cyril's life, Julian, too, is outrageously funny in the early scenes, though this strains credulity at points (his sexual awareness and confidence at the age of seven is a prime example):
"Have you ever met a priest who didn't want to beat six shades of shit out of you? They get off on it, of course."
My eyes and mouth opened wide in scandalized delight. "No," I admitted. "Not so far, anyway. I think it's something they teach them in the seminary."
"It's because they're all so sexually frustrated, of course," he told me. 'They can't have sex, you see, so they beat up little boys and it gives them stiffies when they do it. It's the closest they get to orgasms during the day."
Julian and the Averys are so much fun that when they disappear in the second third of the novel, one misses them.
Furies does, in fact, turn more serious in its later sections but, in a way, it has to: after all, what history of gay men's progress in the latter-half of the twentieth century -- for that, in essence, is what the book amounts to -- could do anything less? At times, indeed, the novel is reminiscent of the movie Forest Gump, with the narrator experiencing seemingly all the most significant events of gay life in the past six or seven decades. Still, it must be said, one feels the hole where Julian and the Averys used to be because Cyril himself is something of a stick. Cyril also makes a decision in the second third of the novel which is sure to divide readers, and create fodder for endless discussions of his actions. Without giving too much away, it is a decision which requires at least the final third of the novel for the reader to reconcile and -- for many -- perhaps, the reconciliation will never occur.
However, it is precisely in this decision that -- after the initial disappointment fades -- Boyne's true accomplishment in the novel may lie. Taken to task for what he does, the narrator is asked: "What the fuck is wrong with you [gay] people?…Why do you always have to lie about everything, hide everything? Why not just tell the truth? What the fuck is wrong with simply being honest with people from the start?"
The point, for Boyne, is that -- given the repression of gays in the world, and in Ireland, specifically -- how could a gay person be honest with anyone about what he or she was feeling, when, for centuries and in every way, the church and society have relentlessly told them what they felt was wrong, needed to be hidden, and was even criminal? Whether Cyril's decision is ultimately defensible or not depends a great deal on how one responds to this accusation -- depends even, perhaps, on the age of the reader, for there are many in the current generation of gay people who have no idea how deep the repression (and resulting subterfuge) has historically run.
Again, however one responds to this, it ultimately causes a break between the narrator and Julian, and it is, indeed, a painful one. It's is hard to say precisely why Cyril's rift with the great love object of his life, Julian, is so affecting, and yet it is. Julian and Cyril are nothing alike: Cyril is bookish and shy, and head-over-heels in love with Julian, while Julian, meanwhile, is a near-polar opposite: a good-looking, self-centered womanizer whose relationship with Cyril is based almost entirely on (mostly) good-natured ribbing. Yet, the affection does seem to be heartfelt, at base, which is why what happens between them seems so devastating.
It would be a mistake to call this a story of unrequited love, and yet, the specter of Cyril's love for Julian hangs over the entirety of the novel. More accurately, it is the story of one gay man -- perhaps of every gay person -- as he makes his way through the events of a lifetime, and eventually makes his own kind of peace with the world.
The other mistake one might make about the book is to presume, by virtue of its title, that it is heavy, or overly serious. On the contrary: the first third of this novel contains some of the funniest material I've ever read, gay or straight. The Heart's Invisible Furies is a big, messy novel that --- granted -- is overly cartoonish in places, overly coincidental, and heavily sentimental. However, it's the first time I ever recall actually crying at the end of a book, and I must say, I was truly moved by the ending. In sum, it's an absolute delight.