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book review

John Boyne.

"Long before we discovered that he had fathered two children by two different women, one in Drimoleague and one in Clonakilty, Father James Monroe stood on the altar of the Church of Our Lady, Star of the Sea, in the parish of Goleen, West Cork, and denounced my mother as a whore."

Now that's a book you want to keep reading, right?

The Heart's Invisible Furies is John Boyne's 10th novel for adults – and a deeply personal one. The author and his protagonist Cyril Avery share the experience of growing up gay in Catholic Church-dominated Ireland, where homosexuality was a criminal offence as recently as the early 1990s, when Boyne was in university. Things have changed tremendously over Boyne's lifetime; gay marriage was approved in an Irish referendum in 2015 (when the novel's epilogue is set). But for Cyril, this progress comes late in life.

The story begins in tiny Goleen, where Catherine Goggin is publicly shamed by the parish priest due to her condition – pregnant and unmarried – and then exiled. On the bus to the big city, Catherine – Kitty – meets a nice young man, who is going to be sharing a room in Dublin with a boy from his hometown. Concerned, he invites her to crash with them until she can find a job and a place of her own.

The novel is told in seven-year increments; after the first section, we leave Kitty to focus on Cyril, now a seven-year-old adopted as a newborn into a wealthy family. He has all the creature comforts a boy could want, but is deprived of the most important comfort – loving parents. His parents always refer to him as their adopted son and insist that he call them by their first names, Charles and Maude. Cyril grows into adulthood completely closeted, relying on brisk, anonymous sexual liaisons in the night, but he desperately wants to achieve what he has been socialized to believe is a normal life – which means marriage to a woman.

He will ultimately find true love, but not without consequences.

The book deals with some serious subject matter – gay-bashing, political corruption, AIDS – as well as the brutal sadness of being an other in a society that does not tolerate or even acknowledge others. But too often, Boyne goes for laughs to the detriment of the narrative. Some of the passages – the dialogue in particular – are indeed funny, but by sacrificing authenticity for a cheap laugh, he does a disservice to his story. I was jolted out of Cyril's world again and again by the incongruity of the witty repartee.

"There's something terribly crude about a popular book, don't you think?" says Maude, a novelist who hopes never to achieve any sort of commercial success. But this jokey nudge, nudge, wink, wink from Boyne (who has found great commercial success himself, particularly with his young-adult novel The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas) wears thin. Here's Maude again: "I can't remember the last time I read a novel. They're all so tedious and writers do go on at such length. Brevity is the key, if you ask me." Again, this seems to be something of an inside joke between author and reader, occurring as it does in a book that goes on for nearly 600 pages. The kicker is that Maude is saying all of this to a seven-year-old boy she has just met. I don't care how ridiculous or out-of-touch Boyne is trying to paint Maude as; this is just preposterous. For this to be successfully funny, it has to be a bit believable. Not a big deal, you might think, in a plot-rich page-turner (as this is). But there were so many disjointed passages where Boyne went for laughs rather than plausibility that it was a consistent irritant. I could provide many more examples of ridiculous bits of dialogue that were far more jarring than clever – my copy of the book was dog-eared with them – but I do not have 600 pages worth of space here.

My other beef with this book, which I tried so desperately to like, is the virtual disappearance of Kitty. While she does pop up at points in the book, it is never as a fully realized character. She has a fascinating story to tell, and while we do learn some of it, eventually, it's not nearly enough.

The novel's most successful moments come when Boyne scraps the comedy shtick and paints a more realistic picture of tender connections and difficult circumstances. This could have been a smart, raging satire of Ireland, as that tremendous opening sentence promised. Cyril thinks of Dublin as "a city I loved at the heart of a country I loathed. A town filled with good-hearted innocents, miserable bigots, adulterous husbands, conniving churchmen, paupers who received no help from the State, and millionaires who sucked the lifeblood from it." More of that and what a book this would have been.

Marsha Lederman is the Globe's Western arts correspondent.

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