New novel brings John Boyne closer to home: A History of Loneliness
Book review: a troubling work about clerical abuse
John Boyne: has his finger on an array of Irish social issues. There is also an autobiographical element to his new novel, as Fr Yates has been teaching at Terenure College, Boyne’s old school, for 27 years. Photograph: Alan Betson
A History of Loneliness
The ongoing crisis of Catholicism in Ireland has produced a substantial body of academic, documentary and fictional work. Books, television programmes, films and plays about the abuse of children and others by members of religious communities have attempted to expose, condemn or simply comprehend this criminal betrayal of trust. John Boyne’s A History of Loneliness, the latest entry in the field, is “dedicated to all these victims; may they have happier times ahead”.
Boyne is best known as the author of The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas, his Holocaust novel, which was made into a successful film. He is a prolific, feted and popular writer, with books translated into an astounding 47 languages. The History of Loneliness is atypical of these, in that it is his first book set in Ireland.
Often Boyne’s writing centres on a well-known historical event or a period that is intriguing to readers: St Petersburg in the last days of the tsar, the London society of the prince of Wales and Mrs Simpson or, as in The Thief of Time, one of his earliest books, a number of well-known historical events relayed through time travel. Within these parameters he builds a fiction that is highly engaging.
The History of Loneliness tells the story from the perspective of Fr Odran Yates, who, although never guilty of abusive behaviour, did not speak out about abuse of which he was aware.
Yates is an entirely passive man, and his reticence in this regard is, importantly, of a piece with his personality and his personal history. We learn that his depressive father drowned himself and his son (Yates’s four-year-old brother) as a final vindictive act in a ruinous marriage. Yates’s mother, now dead, turned to religion maniacally after the tragedy.
His surviving family consists of a widowed sister with dementia and two nephews, one estranged and living abroad, the other a prominent writer and gay.
Obviously Boyne has his finger on an array of Irish social issues. There is also an autobiographical element, as Fr Yates has been teaching at Terenure College, Boyne’s old school, for 27 years.
Yates’s best friend from seminary days, Fr Tom Cardle, was an abused boy who became an abuser. He is being moved from parish to parish, and Yates doesn’t know why.
Chapters are not chronological but designated by year, ranging from 1964 to 2013. The narrative weaves among formative incidents in Yates’s life, allowing the writer to divulge the story’s secrets piecemeal and thereby retaining a degree of suspense. The flashback format also complicates our understanding of Yates’s degree of awareness, but the device can become coy. Yates as narrator alludes too often and ominously to his fall from grace in Rome in 1978, at the time of the mysterious death of Pope John Paul I.
The novel gains in complexity by presenting a nuanced, and at times very sympathetic, portrait of clerics and clerical life. Although some are recognisable types, few remain mere stereotypes.
The innocence of the times rings true, as does Boyne’s portrayal of the seminarians as just a bunch of teenage boys in some respects. Similarly the power of authority – the hierarchy, teachers, parents, gardaí – is demonstrated both forcefully and subtly.
It is difficult in any age to convey the dynamics of faith on the page, and the author’s efforts here are powerful and arresting. The loneliness of the title is the collateral damage of that dynamic.
Attention to detail can waver at times. For such a seasoned writer Boyne relies too heavily on product placement – Calvita sandwiches, Player’s cigarettes, box Brownies – to signal period rather than providing a full evocation of an era.
And, in a novel attempting an honest exploration of a grave subject, there are some dubious excesses. On a crowded train from Dublin to Galway Yates is offered a seat, in turn, by an officious matron who insists she will hold her son on her lap, an obsequious man old enough to be his grandfather and a heavily pregnant woman – all in ardent competition with each other.
Readers do know about the exaggerated deference paid to clergy in the past; one such character would have done to remind us and to illustrate the young priest’s unease.
When Yates admits that his vocation may result from an epiphany his mother experienced while watching The Late Late Show, or when the pope (a great fan of The Quiet Man) breaks into a rendition of The Wild Colonial Boy, we might wonder why we’ve ventured so far into Father Ted territory in a book that sets out to cover very different ground.
Much more sensitively handled is a scene where Fr Yates tries to reunite a crying five-year-old with his mother on Wicklow Street and finds himself in Garda custody being treated like, and called, a paedophile.
Sean O’Casey is invoked often in this book because of a slender connection to the Yates family. The master of tragicomedy may be the author’s model here, but the subtleties of the form prove difficult to balance.
The History of Loneliness is a troubling book about a continuingly difficult and disturbing subject. Readers of Boyne’s fiction who have followed him around the world now have a chance to see how he has applied his skills to a subject very close to home.