Published by Hogarth Press
Publication date: August 22nd 2017
Cyril Avery’s birth was not a propitious one. He came into the world onto the floor of a tiny apartment, next to the unconscious body of his mother’s roommate, with the roommate’s lover lying dead on the stairs below. It was Ireland in 1945 and the roommate and the lover were also teens, but they were men and as such had been hunted down by one’s father. From this beginning of extreme violence, John Boyne’s The Heart’s Invisible Furies follows Cyril on his life’s journey to find acceptance and happiness.
Being unwed and only sixteen his mother knows she cannot keep him and so gives Cyril up for adoption to the wealthy, but eccentric Maude and Charles Avery. Maude and Charles provide for Cyril, but are so involved in their own lives that why they wanted a child is unclear. She is a writer and a copious smoker and Charles is a prison-prone, wealthy banker and copious adulterer. Very early on, Maude says about Charles
What you know about women could be written in large font on the back of a postage stamp and there’d still be room for the Lord’s Prayer.
Cyril goes without love for his formative years and it isn’t until he gets to boarding school as a pre-teen that he realizes he’s attracted to other boys. He’s without the sense of self that would allow him to move towards love. Instead, in the ultra-repressive atmosphere of Ireland it is a source of deep shame and fear so he spends his twenties having furtive sexual encounters in alleys and bathrooms where even lust is tempered by the very real fear of being beaten or imprisoned. His is a supreme loneliness and it informs all his choices and mistakes he makes at the time. It isn’t until Cyril leaves Ireland after a misguided attempt to be ‘normal’ and goes to Amsterdam that his bone-deep loneliness and isolation is assuaged.
The Heart’s Invisible Furies reminded me of A Little Life but without the gasping physical pain. Which isn’t to say that Cyril doesn’t suffer—he comes of age in a time and place, Ireland in the 1950s, when homosexuality is not only a grievous sin but is also against the law. He’s told he can’t exist by both the government and his religion—which are basically one and the same. This is the third novel I’ve read, set in Ireland, that portrays the country in a terribly unpleasant light. The other two were The Wonder and The Good People. It’s not even light, but the pervasive darkness of religion used to promulgate hate and ignorance. Boyne’s characters don’t mince words at their treatment by the Catholic Church.
“Ireland is a backward hole of a country run by vicious, evil-minded, sadistic priests and a government so in thrall to the collar that it’s practically led around on a leash.”
“Sure the priests ran the country back then and they hated women. Oh my God, they hated women and anything that had to do with women and anything to do with women’s bodies or ideas or desires, and any chance they had to humiliate a woman or bring her down, they would take full advantage of it.”
Boyne moves the pieces of Cyril’s life with finesse and grace, letting the reader in on the big picture even as Cyril has no idea how everything in his life fits together. Bearing witness as it unfolds is both heartwarming and heartbreaking. He does not shy away from exploring the pain in Cyril’s life, but he tempers the emotional traumas by infusing the novel with a trenchant humor—even about such things as parents that don’t show love, a near arrest in a men’s bathroom, and dating a woman he doesn’t even like. Boyne’s use of humor, even in the worst times of Cyril’s life, is what sets the novel apart. He doesn’t make light of it, just reminds us how, often, being able to laugh is the only way to get through the pain. It is this gift that allows The Heart’s Invisible Furies to tug, pull, and ultimately nestle in the reader’s heart.