Fast moving and full of humor, The Heart’s Invisible Furies examines 20th-century Ireland’s changing attitudes toward sexuality, through the lens of one gay man’s life.
First released in 2017, the novel is Irish author John Boyne’s tenth book for adults. The story follows Cyril Avery, an adopted gay male born out of wedlock in the 1940s, as he struggles to come to terms with sexuality over the course of seven decades. Against the backdrop of a society in rapid flux, Cyril falls in and out of love, contends with the homophobia of the omnipresent Catholic Church, and connects with his birth mother.
The novel begins not with Cyril but with his mother Catherine’s exile from her hometown. From the vantage point of the present, Cyril offers a second-hand account of how Catherine fled her rural town after her church’s priest publicly denounced her as a whore. His mother moved to Dublin and found close companions in a gay couple, but a brutal act of violence cut short the trio’s domestic bliss. While a bit underdeveloped, the section paints a lurid portrait of a nation ruled by repression, misogyny, and homophobia, and contextualizes Cyril’s own coming-of-age story.
From there, the protagonist takes center stage and recalls how he became a man. Each of the novel’s eleven chapters jumps ahead seven years, focusing on a different stage in Cyril’s life. Somehow Cyril tends to make the best out of bleak situations, whether he’s contending with his adoptive father’s claim that he isn’t a “real” Avery or moving beyond a love interest’s abusive behavior. As the present approaches, the Catholic Church becomes beset by scandal, its conservative influence over Ireland’s political life wanes, and social tolerance spreads, though the specter of the closeted past continues to haunt Cyril.
Cyril’s story follows a well-established model for gay coming-of-age narratives, in that he moves away from diffidence, confusion, and shame toward love, pride, and certainty; the novel’s many secondary characters come across as accessories and guides to the journey of the well-developed male protagonist.
But the 580-page novel is epic in scope, charting a young republic’s growing pains, and its plot is as much about Cyril as it is Ireland. Boyne deftly interweaves the personal and the political, and the story never feels hackneyed or myopic, even if it is a bit predictable.
In spite of the story’s dark themes and grand perspective, Boyne incorporates a surprising, even excessive, amount of humor into the narrative. Self-consciously clever dialogue dominates the plot, which helps to quicken the large novel’s pace but sometimes diminishes the emotional effects of painful and melancholy scenes. Acts of reprehensible social violence populate the novel, and Boyne might have more fully dwelled in anger.
The author’s prose is cinematic, if nothing else. A series of episodic vignettes comprise each chapter, which feature an abundance of intimate conversations between characters, and Boyne emphasizes action at the expense of description. The book’s length might recall that of a nineteenth-century novel, but its style feels much closer to a screenplay.
A thoughtful look at a changing nation, The Heart’s Invisible Furies sketches a nuanced portrait of an Irish gay man’s life. While the author’s frequent use of humor sometimes undermines the emotional weight of pivotal scenes, the book is expansive and warmhearted, and well worth checking out.
The novel is the first I’ve read for the 2019 Historical Fiction Reading Challenge, as well as the first on my list for Reading Ireland Month 2019. So much has been written about the book that reviewing it feels more than a bit redundant, but I did enjoy finally having the chance to check out Boyne’s writing and gather my thoughts about his work.
Next up on my list for Reading Ireland Month is Elizabeth Bowen’s 1938 novel The Death of the Heart, which I’ve already started. Bowen’s prose is wonderful, a stark contrast to Boyne’s utilitarian style, and the storyline has been engaging so far.
I’m interested in eventually checking out more of both authors’ books, though I’m not sure where to begin given their prolific output; I’d really appreciate any suggestions!