The Heart’s Invisible Furies by John Boyne

One day in 1945, Catherine Goggin, sixteen and unmarried, is banished from her small village in West Cork, Ireland, for committing the sin of becoming pregnant. Shamed by the priest in front of an entire congregation and cast out by her family, Catherine makes her way to Dublin in the hope of starting a new life for herself. When her baby boy, Cyril, is born several months later, she makes the decision to put him up for adoption – and from this point, Catherine steps into the background of our story. Our attention switches now to Cyril, growing up in the home of his adoptive parents, Charles and Maude Avery.

Charles is a rich but disreputable businessman with a weakness for gambling and womanising, while Maude is a temperamental, chain-smoking novelist who hates the thought of anyone actually buying one of her books. Unsurprisingly, they do not make good parents and never let Cyril forget that he is “not a real Avery”. The one bright spot in Cyril’s life is his friendship with Julian Woodbead, the son of Charles Avery’s lawyer. Julian is popular, sophisticated and daring; everything Cyril wants to be. As the boys grow older, however, and enter their teenage years, Cyril becomes aware that what he feels for Julian is not just friendship but love.

Narrated by Cyril himself, the story is divided into sections moving forward seven years at a time, taking us from the 1940s right through to 2015 and around the world from Dublin to Amsterdam to New York. Along the way we meet a range of characters who, while they may not be very realistic, are so vividly drawn they almost jump out of the page; I particularly loved the hilarious Mary-Margaret Muffet, Cyril’s first girlfriend, who has “very high standards” and who proudly announces to everyone she meets that she knows all about the world because she works on the “foreign exchange desk at the Bank of Ireland, College Green”. We also witness, through Cyril’s eyes, some of the most significant historical events to occur in his lifetime, including the bombing of Nelson’s Pillar in Dublin, the impact of AIDS in the 1980s, the 9/11 attacks and Ireland’s referendum on gay marriage.

The main focus of Cyril’s story, however, is on his sexuality and how he comes to terms with it. As a young man growing up in Catholic Ireland, he quickly discovers that it is not at all easy to be homosexual in a society where people don’t even want to acknowledge that such a thing exists; his attempt to confess to a priest has shocking consequences! And so, for a long time, Cyril tries to deny his feelings even to himself (hence Mary-Margaret and one or two other women). Eventually he can suppress his love for Julian no longer…but things don’t go exactly according to plan.

Actually, things never do seem to go according to plan for Cyril and it would be difficult not to feel some sympathy! Sometimes it’s his own fault, as he does make a lot of mistakes and bad decisions, but he is also a victim of prejudice, intolerance and lack of understanding. With the novel jumping forward in seven-year chunks, we see not only how Cyril’s personal circumstances have changed in the intervening time, but also how attitudes towards homosexuality have changed – subtly at first, but quite dramatically by 2015. I couldn’t help feeling, though, that sometimes the messages Boyne was trying to get across came at the expense of the story.

Having read and enjoyed several of John Boyne’s novels over the last few years, I was really looking forward to reading The Heart’s Invisible Furies and although A History of Loneliness is still my favourite, I did find a lot to like about this one – his longest and most ambitious book yet. I should probably warn you that the humour is often very dark and sometimes not in very good taste, which won’t be for everyone, and that as Cyril’s sexuality forms such an important part of the story, it’s also quite explicit at times. I wasn’t sure whether it was going to be my sort of book or not at first, but after an uncertain start I found myself being drawn into Cyril’s story and then there was no question of not finishing it!

Following Cyril Avery’s life from birth to old age was a memorable experience! He’s a wonderful character…so complex and so human. Although the plot is built around a series of highly unlikely coincidences, I didn’t mind too much as it meant everything fell into place at the end. Not all of the characters get a happy ending, but some of them do and I was left with the hope that the younger generations of Cyril’s family would find certain aspects of their lives easier to deal with than poor Cyril did!

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

  1. calmgrove says:

    Interesting writing, by the sound of it, and clearly engaging. Coincidence is a difficult element of plotting, isn’t it — you accept it more readily in real life than in novels, where it can seem contrived — especially with the cliche “Fact is stranger than fiction” ringing in our ears.

    • Helen says:

      Yes, that’s true! I have read quite a few of John Boyne’s books now and they all require the reader to suspend disbelief to a certain extent, but that doesn’t really bother me when the writing is so engaging.

  2. FictionFan says:

    This will be my introduction to Boyne and I’m not at all sure it’s going to be for me. However, I shall take heart from the fact that you found yourself drawn into it, and that you think the characterisation is strong. Unfortunately I’ve had to bump it down the schedule to make way for my Classics Club spin, but hopefully I’ll get to it soonish. Great review!

    • Helen says:

      Well, I didn’t think I was going to like it at all when I first started reading, and I ended up enjoying it, so you never know! It’s quite different from the other John Boyne books I’ve read, so it could be worth giving one of his others a try if you decide this one isn’t for you.

  3. TJ @ MyBookStrings says:

    I was looking at reading this one, but decided to read The Absolutist instead as my first John Boyne novel. So far, so good. I will keep this one in mind for a later time, since I generally enjoy dark humor.

  4. Sandra says:

    Interesting. I enjoy books which follow a character from cradle to grave: Any Human Heart springs to mind, which I enjoyed but at times found a little far-fetched. Perhaps this one is similar in that respect?

    • Helen says:

      I haven’t read Any Human Heart so I don’t know how it compares to this book, but you’ve reminded me that William Boyd is an author I’ve been meaning to read for ages!

  5. Laurie says:

    It sounds ambitious indeed! On a more personal note, I do not know how people in the LGBT community survived for most of history (and in many cases, now) with either religion, families or themselves to contend with. It seems a little dark humor was necessary to survive!

    • Helen says:

      It must have been very difficult, especially in times and places where LGBT people weren’t even acknowledged, let alone accepted. Reading this book made me appreciate just how hard it was (and sometimes still is).

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