Book review: The Heart’s Invisible Furies by John Boyne

by Michelle Langstone / 18 April, 2017

John Boyne.

John Boyne delivers a funny, ambitious novel about growing up gay in Ireland.

In his latest novel, John Boyne (The Boy in Striped Pyjamas, A History of Loneliness) traces the life of Cyril Avery, a child born out of wedlock and adopted into an eccentric family in Dublin in the 1950s.

The question at the core of The Heart’s Invisible Furies is who Cyril actually is – his mother is unknown; his lineage, therefore, in doubt.

Boyne gives Cyril full narration rights as he navigates his childhood, and comes to terms with being a gay man in a heavily religious and repressive Ireland, where homosexual hate crimes occur with semi-regularity.

More broadly, Boyne’s novel examines Ireland’s identity by way of its sexual politics from the 1950s to 2015, when gay marriage became legal via popular vote.

It’s an ambitious novel, to say the least. Historical ground covered includes IRA uprisings in the 60s, red-light sex work in Amsterdam in the early 80s, the first wave of the HIV and Aids epidemic in New York, the attacks on the World Trade Center, and many other formative place holders in between. At times, it feels very much like a tromp through a 20th-century highlights reel.

Boyne’s protagonist, Cyril (bearing more than a passing resemblance to John Irving’s titular character in The World According to Garp), is something of an everyman: not entirely in focus, and often overshadowed by a host of vivid characters who adorn the canvas of his life.

His adoptive parents, Maude and Charles, the former a famous novelist and the latter a philanderer and financial fraud, bring flamboyance and humour to Cyril’s early life.

The first third of the novel is an often-hilarious comedy of errors as these two rather inept parental figures make vague attempts at nurturing a young boy discovering his sexuality alongside his personality.

Boyne’s ear for witty dialogue induces many laughs, and his deft touch with the rhythm and cadence of the Irish vernacular is charming.

However, the clever exchanges begin to feel repetitive as the novel stretches to a biblical 600 pages. The last third of the book seems to lose both clarity and energy, despite the jokes coming thick and fast.

Boyne’s colourful characters have a habit of spelling out the narrative in laboured dialogue that allows no room for the reader to interpret the story, a quality that dampens the emotional effect of what is otherwise a fascinating life.

Most tender is Boyne’s rendering of the two great loves of Cyril’s life – his childhood friend Julian and his long-term partner, Bastiaan – the adolescent infatuation of the first giving way to a gentle maturity and depth in the second. So, too, Cyril’s circuitous path to finding his birth mother is marked by yearning and acceptance.

Despite its flaws, The Heart’s Invisible Furies is an engaging yarn, ultimately relatable, funny and warm.

The Heart’s Invisible Furies, by John Boyne (Doubleday, $38)

This article was first published in the April 1, 2017 issue of the New Zealand Listener. Follow the Listener on Twitter, Facebook and sign up to the weekly newsletter.

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