December’s Doorstopper: The Heart’s Invisible Furies by John Boyne

The more I examined the architecture of my life, the more I realized how fraudulent were its foundations.

This is a book that wasn’t even on my radar until fairly late on in the year, when I noticed just how many of my Goodreads friends had read it and rated it – almost without fail – 5 stars. I knew John Boyne’s name only through the movie version of his Holocaust-set novel for younger readers, The Boy in the Striped Pajamas, and didn’t think I’d be interested in his work. But the fact that The Heart’s Invisible Furies was written in homage to John Irving (Boyne’s dedicatee) piqued my interest, and I’m so glad I gave it a try. It distills all the best of Irving’s tendencies while eschewing some of his more off-putting ones. Of the Irving novels I’ve read, this is most like The World According to Garp and In One Person, with which it shares, respectively, a strong mother–son relationship and a fairly explicit sexual theme.

A wonderful seam of humor tempers the awfulness of much of what befalls Cyril Avery, starting with his indifferent adoptive parents, Charles and Maude. Charles is a wealthy banker and incorrigible philanderer occasionally imprisoned for tax evasion, while Maude is a chain-smoking author whose novels, to her great disgust, are earning her a taste of celebrity. Both are cold and preoccupied, always quick to remind Cyril that since he’s adopted he’s “not a real Avery”. The first bright spot in Cyril’s life comes when, at age seven, he meets Julian Woodbead, the son of his father’s lawyer. They become lifelong friends, though Cyril’s feelings are complicated by an unrequited crush. Julian is as ardent a heterosexual as Cyril is a homosexual, and sex drives them apart in unexpected and ironic ways in the years to come.

For Cyril, born in Dublin in 1945, homosexuality seems a terrible curse. It was illegal in Ireland until 1993, so assignations had to be kept top-secret to avoid police persecution and general prejudice. Only when he leaves for Amsterdam and the USA is Cyril able to live the life he wants. The structure of the novel works very well: Boyne checks in on Cyril every seven years, starting with the year of his birth and ending in the year of his death. In every chapter we quickly adjust to a new time period, deftly and subtly marked out by a few details, and catch up on Cyril’s life. Sometimes we don’t see the most climactic moments; instead, we see what happened just before and then Cyril remembers the aftermath for us years later. It’s an effective tour through much of the twentieth century and beyond, punctuated by the AIDS crisis and focusing on the status of homosexuals in Ireland – in 2015 same-sex marriage was legalized, which would have seemed unimaginable a few short decades before.

Boyne also sustains a dramatic irony that kept me reading eagerly: the book opens with the story Cyril’s birth mother told him of her predicament in 1945, and in later chapters Cyril keeps running into this wonderfully indomitable woman in Dublin – but neither of them realizes how intimately they’re connected. Thanks to the first chapter we know they eventually meet and all will be revealed, but exactly when and how is a delicious mystery.

Along with Irving, Dickens must have been a major influence on Boyne. I spotted traces of David Copperfield and Great Expectations in minor characters’ quirks as well as in Cyril’s orphan status, excessive admiration of a romantic interest, and frequent maddening failures to do the right thing. But there are several other recent novels – all doorstoppers – that are remarkably similar in their central themes and questions. In Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch, Hanya Yanagihara’s A Little Life and Nathan Hill’s The Nix we also have absent or estranged mothers; friends, lovers and adoptive family who help cut through a life of sadness and pain; and the struggle against a fate that seems to force one to live a lie. Given a span of 500 pages or more, it’s easy to become thoroughly engrossed in the life of a flawed character.

The Heart’s Invisible Furies – a phrase Hannah Arendt used to describe the way W.H. Auden wore his experiences on his face – is an alternately heartbreaking and heartening portrait of a life lived in defiance of intolerance and tragedy. A very Irish sense of humor runs all through the dialogue and especially Maude’s stubborn objection to fame. I loved Boyne’s little in-jokes about the writer’s life (“It’s a hideous profession. Entered into by narcissists who think their pathetic little imaginations will be of interest to people they’ve never met”) and thanks to my recent travels I was able to picture a lot of the Dublin and Amsterdam settings. Although it’s been well reviewed on both sides of the Atlantic, I’m baffled that this novel doesn’t have the high profile it deserves. I am especially grateful to Sarah of Sarah’s Book Shelves for naming this her book of the year: knowing her discriminating tastes, I could tell I’d be in for something special. Look out for it on my Best Fiction of 2017 list tomorrow.

My rating:

 


I got just four books for Christmas this year, but they’re all ones I’m very excited to read. I looked back at last year’s Christmas book haul photo and am impressed that I’ve actually read seven out of eight of them now – and the eighth is a cocktail cookbook one wouldn’t read all the way through anyway. All too often I let books sit around for years unread, but I will try to keep up this trend of reading books fairly soon after they enter my collection.

17 thoughts on “December’s Doorstopper: The Heart’s Invisible Furies by John Boyne

  1. I’m so glad you loved it and thanks for the shout-out! And – isn’t it crazy how few of the traditional media’s Best Books of 2017 lists it’s been on?!! I counted 4 vs. 23 for Sing, Unburied, Sing and 22 for Exit West. Why is it being so overlooked? It, like the other two, does tackle important issues and is an “important” book (the seeming criteria for inclusion in lots of those lists in my view)…only it’s also a total joy to read!

    I guess it’s up to us bloggers to get people reading it…which I’m more than happy to do!

    Liked by 2 people

    1. You’re welcome. I think apart from you I only saw one other blogger review the book. (I’m sure there are more blog reviews out there, just not among people I happen to follow.) The review blurbs I saw in my NetGalley download seemed very favorable. I wonder if the fact that the book came out pretty early in the year (February, vs. November for Sing, Unburied, Sing) worked against it. By the time the end of year lists rolled around, the critics had forgotten it? It’s got an incredibly high cumulative rating on Goodreads, though, so there’s definitely a lot of love for it out there.

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  2. I have eschewed Boyne since The Boy in the Stripped Pyjamas because I have to be one of the few people who didn’t think much of it. I couldn’t believe that his father wouldn’t have had him indoctrinated by the Hitler Youth movement and so the whole central premise was destroyed for me. This, however, sounds more like my thing, especially as I love Irving. I shall look out for a copy.

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    1. Yes, I saw the film version of that book and found it rather mawkish, so didn’t think Boyne would be for me. It really was the weight of all my Goodreads’ friends’ 5-star reviews that convinced me to have a look at this one. I also hear great things about Boyne’s The Absolutist.

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  3. That does sound very interesting although I’m not an Irving fan. I’m glad you got such a lot out of it. And FOUR books, goodness, maybe I got your allotment this year!! Pics to come, poss on Fri or Sat. But the TBR is about to burst …

    What are you reading at the end of the year? One of these new ones?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Quality over quantity? 🙂 I have so many books in the house already anyway — I plan to do an inventory before year’s end and then will see how bad the situation truly is. I feel I should really do one of those challenges where I only read books I own for some months or for a whole year, but I know I can’t resist the lure of brand-new books (plus I often read them for paid reviews).

      I’m reading a mixture of things just now, mostly from the library and my own collection, but also two 2018 releases I plan to preview in the next few days. I do plan to start the O’Farrell today as I’ve wanted to read it for so long.

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  4. Great review! I really want to read this one. I’ve read two of his books for kids, but still haven’t read any of his adult books, although I own a couple now. From what I’ve heard and seen, I feel like I can’t go too wrong with any of them!

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  5. It is quite astounding given how many readers have highly rated this novel and I agree with them why, that it hasn’t been more talked about in the traditional media, I think it’s ground-breaking in terms of what it addresses and highly accomplished in its delivery. I’m so glad I read it and having bought it for my brother for Christmas, he’s just finished it and feels the same way, I do hope it continues to get passed on by word of mouth, it so deserves to be read by a much wider audience.

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    1. I quite agree, Claire. It may be an unfortunate coincidence of when the book was published, at a sort of dead time in the calendar. Or perhaps it’s felt that the style of storytelling is old-fashioned? It’s certainly struck a chord with the average reader, though. I’m glad you loved it as much as I did.

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