Ireland has a tradition of producing great humour, writing, music, beer and whisky. What they can be less proud of is allowing Catholic dogma to run the country for far too long and their slow acknowledgement of human rights. The Heart’s Invisible Furies by John Boyne brings this theme home in a wonderful story of a complicated extended and blended family affected by Ireland’s backward morality and condemnation of homosexuality. Boyne also authored The Boy In The Striped Pyjamas and The House of Special Purpose.
The story begins in 1945 with sixteen-year-old Catherine Goggin, a rural Irish girl who becomes pregnant outside of marriage. After she is humiliated and cast out by the local priest in front of the entire village, Catherine takes a bus to Dublin to begin building a new life. She gives birth to a baby boy who is given up for adoption. The story then follows the life of her son named Cyril by his adoptive parents Charles and Maude Avery, an unconventional couple who provide a comfortable home but without affection. Charles is a banker and philanderer; Maude is a successful and famous Irish novelist. When Julian, who is the son of Charles’s solicitor enters the picture, the boys quickly connect as friends but lose contact until they are designated roommates at boarding school in their teens. As a result of Cyril’s unloving upbringing and isolation as an only child he’s a naïve and socially awkward young man. Julian’s acceptance of Cyril’s quirks and their developing friendship soon makes Cyril aware that his love for Julian goes beyond what is deemed natural and normal in the eyes of the Catholic Church.
For readers living in a country as tolerant and progressive as Canada is now, it’s hard to believe that homosexuality was illegal in Ireland until 1993. (Canada was also not without blame as homosexuality was illegal here until 1967.) Birth control was forbidden and gay marriage was not legalized in Ireland until 2011. For young gay men like Cyril growing up in Ireland in the last half of the twentieth century, life was a constant struggle. Same-sex relationships had to be conducted in secret and there were always misguided moralists eager to expose gays and lesbians. Discovery would mean imprisonment and disgrace. The result of this deception meant that thousands of individuals and families’ lives were unfairly ruined by hypocritical church doctrine. Priests regularly had affairs with members of both sexes (and worse) and fathered children by their partners, yet they condemned the behaviour and lifestyle of innocent gay people.
Cyril struggles through the challenges of reaching adulthood in a country of intolerance and prejudice. We witness his ruined relationships and the abuses he casts upon himself for something he cannot control. At the same time, his birth mother Catherine Goggin makes regular appearances in the plotline without either of them aware of their connection. When Cyril moves to Amsterdam and falls in love with a Dutch physician specializing in AIDS research, his life settles into a kind of marital happiness. A later move to New York complicates the plot and changes his life forever.
The story exposes the difficulties encountered by gay baby boomer men but is representative of all gay men and women in Ireland not that long ago. The lives of Cyril Avery and his extended family are complicated by secrets that in today’s more tolerant world would be unthinkable. But the story comes full circle and despite tragedy and a series of bumps in the road, it has a happy ending. I thoroughly enjoyed The Heart’s Invisible Furies as it further illustrates the evils of intolerance.
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