A curate’s egg of a novel: A History of Loneliness

Retired English teacher and Book Club member Vincent Hanley finds much to admire but also to criticise in John Boyne’s novel


John Boyne’s central character in A History of Loneliness is very wishy-washy, the embodiment of a blasphemous blessed trinity of monkeys – he sees no evil, he hears no evil, he speaks no evil. He is completely overshadowed by the monstrous presence of Fr Tom Cardle, who bestrides the novel like a venomous, predatory, fiendish and malignant Brendan Smyth. Over the course of the novel Fr Odran Yates shows himself to be naïve, innocent and clueless.

It cannot be claimed, as Cardle accuses him towards the end of the novel, that Yates has been complicit in the events that affected his family and his church. If anything, the only accusation we can make is that he has been like the proverbial ostrich with his head in the sand for most of his priestly life.

The blurb suggests that “Fr Odran Yates is a good man”. Not so. As the novel unfolds he is depicted as weak and insipid, he lacks passion, a real calling; he allows evil to flourish by his silence. I find very little to admire in Fr Yates and this is obviously the author’s main aim. Fr Yates’s narrative voice is akin to Seamus Heaney’s phrase in Harvest Bow, “gleaning the unsaid off the palpable”.

We are forced to continuously read between the lines – his greatest sins are sins of omission. This is a deliberate ploy by the author. In Odran Yates we are presented with the embodiment of the unquestioning functionary who never questions authority. Are we therefore to presume that this is Boyne’s thesis: that this insidious and widespread abuse continued on a vast scale because “good men” like Fr Yates stayed quiet – like good children of the ’50s they were seen but never heard?

This new and ambitious novel is set in Ireland, mainly in Dublin and Wexford, also in Rome and Lillehammer, Norway. The first thing that struck me, despite the mainly Irish setting, was that many of the family names are English – Yates, Cooper, Cordington, Camwell, Cardle, etc.

The relevance of the title of the novel, A History of Loneliness, is never nailed down. Loneliness is first mentioned on p442 and then again at the very end when Tom Cardle uses the phrase, “But then I have a history of loneliness. Don’t you?”, to Odran. This, I presume, suggests that the priestly vocation is a lonely road to undertake and that this loneliness has led us to the present impasse. To me, this is a very narrow, stereotypical and simplistic explanation for the horrors which have been revealed over the past number of years and is also based on a faulty understanding of priestly celibacy.

Boyne decides not to tell his story chronologically and this leads to some confusion, toing and froing, backwards and forwards. The novel begins in 2001, then moves to 2006, 1964, 1980, 1972, 2010, 1973, 2011, 1978, 1990, 2007, 1994, 1978, 2008, 2012, and ends in 2013. Boyne is at his best in the 2000s and his depiction of Ireland and its society is very realistic – as are is his descriptions of events in Rome and Norway. However, his depiction of Ireland in the 60s, 70s and 80s is less assured and this reader fumed at many of the lazy stereotypes. This material, to me, was very exaggerated and, quite honestly, lacked credibility. Remember, most of his readers will have lived through the years from the mid-fifties and many, like this reader, expected more. To me, it became obvious that the writer, far from trying to depict a sad and despicable period in the history of the Catholic Church in Ireland, has his own axe to grind.

The Irish Mammy, for example, is depicted in a very stereotypical fashion – “Our mammies had set us down one day and told us that we had vocations and so there we were, ready to dedicate our lives to God”. His own mother, “had an epiphany one night while she was watching the Late Late Show” to the effect that Odran was blessed with a calling from God. In general he suggests that all women in the ’50s lived rather sad lives – “and after all, that is what women did in those days: they went to school. They got a job, they found a husband, and they left the job and retired to the home to look after the family.”

His exaggerated stereotyping of women, priests, guards and politicians leaves a sour taste. On p428 we are again presented with a less than credible scenario when he is leaving Pearse Street Garda station and the duty sergeant behind the desk hisses the word “paedo” as Odran leaves the station. Is this realistic or am I the naïve one? Politicians too are ridiculed as they come under the microscope: “Charles Haughey’s terrible crooked head grinning out from the front page with an expression that said that while he had not quite emptied the pockets of the Irish people just yet, he soon would.”

However, there is a noticeable improvement in the novel beginning with Chapter Six: 2010. There is less cliched characterisation, less lazy stereotyping. Unfortunately, at this stage, we’re on p257 (iPad edition). Many readers will have by this point given up in frustration or disappointment.

Boyne has a number of “purple patches” in the novel when the writing is superb: the Rome episodes; the episode when his parishioner, Ann Sullivan, brings her son to the priest; and nearly all the events depicted in the 2000s are very credible, particularly the radio interview between Cardinal Cordington and Liam Scott and later his eventual journey to Lillehammer and his moving reconciliation with his nephew Aidan.

The episode where Ann Sullivan brings her son who has announced to her that he is gay shows John Boyne and his central character at their best. Ann brings her son to the priest and he mentions that he has a nephew who is gay and recounts to the mother discussions he has had with Jonas concerning his awakening sexuality. Odran asks his nephew how he knew he was gay and Jonas replies, “that he had known since he was nine years old, that the video of a song called Pray by Take That had set off the alarm bells.” This is excellent, this is the John Boyne I remember – the writer who has the uncanny ability to make me feel compassion, even for a Nazi, once upon a time!

As well as Tom Cardle and Cardinal Cordington, Boyne’s other bete noir in the novel is John Paul II. There are numerous unflattering references to the Polish Pope – there is a very vehement and sustained attack on him – presumably because “he knew everything and did nothing”. He refers to him as “that Polish prick”. There are numerous examples of this vitriol, but I will recount just one: it occurs shortly after Odran’s ordination in Rome, which was performed by John Paul II. His sister, Hannah, was wearing a pale green shawl at the ordination and it slipped slightly as she came forward to be presented to the Pope, “and the Holy Father reached out immediately, an expression of near disgust on his face”. He is later described as being “a hater of women”.

Boyne is very harsh on the modern church and its efforts to come to terms with the scandals that have befallen it. His depiction of lay involvement in the church, for example, is very inaccurate – “the men helped to write the parish newsletter, but the women delivered it; the men organised the church social evenings, but the women cleaned up when they were over….etc.”

For me, the ending of the novel is disappointing and does not follow logically from what goes before. Odran now realises that he has wasted his life, that he “had known everything, right from the start, and never acted on any of it”, that he “was just as guilty as the rest of them”. I find this ending highly disconnected from what has gone before. It is a disappointing conclusion to an otherwise excellent read. Therefore, for me, the novel is somewhat of a curate’s egg – good in parts! However, the definitive narrative of Ireland’s disgrace remains to be captured in an honest and realistic way – maybe the film version of A History of Loneliness will hopefully better achieve this balance?

Vincent Hanley recently retired after 37 years teaching English in Scoil Mhuire agus Ide in Newcastle West, Co Limerick. His interests include education, literature, politics, religion and sport, especially the “unlimited heartbreak” of supporting Limerick and Knockaderry GAA.

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