A History of Loneliness by John Boyne

A History of Loneliness The first John Boyne book I read was This House is Haunted, a Victorian-style ghost story. The second was Crippen, a fictional account of the life of the murderer Dr Hawley Harvey Crippen. His latest novel, A History of Loneliness, deals with a subject no less dark and disturbing: the child abuse scandal within the Catholic Church in Ireland.

If you have heard about this scandal on the news or read about it in the newspapers, you have probably asked yourself the following questions. How did these paedophiles get away without being caught for so long? Their friends and colleagues must have known what was going on, so why didn’t they say anything? And why did the victims not come forward earlier? John Boyne attempts to answer these questions and more through the story of Odran Yates, a Catholic priest from Dublin who is ordained in the 1970s and lives through some of the darkest days in the church’s recent history.

Having lost his father and little brother under tragic circumstances during a family beach holiday, the young Odran doesn’t argue when his mother tells him he has a vocation for the priesthood and must dedicate his life to God. After seven years of training, Odran begins working at Terenure College where he finds that teaching English and tidying books in the school library suits him better than carrying out the duties of a traditional parish priest. Hiding away in his library for thirty years, Odran is able to ignore what is happening elsewhere in the church…but is he really as oblivious as he claims to be?

A History of Loneliness is a very insightful and thought-provoking novel and my favourite John Boyne book so far. This is obviously never going to be an easy or comfortable subject to write a book about, but he handles it with sensitivity and understanding. By telling the story from Odran’s perspective this means the focus is not just on the issue of child abuse itself, but also on the dangers of burying our heads in the sand and choosing not to confront things that we find difficult or unpleasant.

There are several different ways in which Odran’s character could be interpreted. I saw him as a weak, naïve but basically well-meaning person who made some terrible mistakes and serious errors of judgment. It’s difficult for anyone to know how they would react under similar circumstances, but I’m sure we would all like to think that we would do what is right and not just take the easy way out. Odran doesn’t always do the right thing and he does sometimes take the easy option, but does that make him as guilty as the people who have actually committed the crimes? It’s left to the reader to decide how much blame should be attributed to Odran and those like him and whether there can ever be any excuse for turning a blind eye and doing nothing.

The novel has an interesting structure as the chapters don’t follow each other chronologically (a chapter set in 2006 is followed by one set in 1964 and then 1980). This was confusing at times but very effective because it meant we were filling in one piece of the story at a time, like a jigsaw puzzle. John Boyne is a wonderful storyteller and as well as exploring the serious, sensitive issues I’ve already described, he also creates an absorbing personal story for Odran and his family which unfolds slowly as we jump back and forth in time.

With the story spanning more than five decades, we are shown how public perception of the Catholic Church has changed over the years. In the 1970s and 1980s, Odran is treated with respect and admiration everywhere he goes; people trust him and look to him for help and advice, never questioning his integrity. By the time we reach the present day, attitudes are completely different. A man spits in Odran’s face just because the clothes he is wearing identify him as a priest, while an attempt to help a lost child in a department store ends in disaster. It’s sad because, of course, not everyone within the church was involved in these sexual scandals and yet they have all suffered through the actions (or non-actions) of others.

A History of Loneliness could easily have been a very depressing book, but thankfully Boyne does add some humour to the story – even if he does seem to rely on Irish stereotypes and clichés at times (if you’ve ever watched the comedy Father Ted you’ll know the sort of humour I mean). If I haven’t already made it clear, I loved this book and am so glad I still have so many of John Boyne’s earlier novels left to explore!

I received a copy of this book for review via NetGalley.

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12 thoughts on “A History of Loneliness by John Boyne”

  1. Sounds like a dark but interesting time period. One that other than recent news stories I know little about. The more reviews I read here of John Boyne’s novels, the more I think I really must reading them.

  2. I recently downloaded a galley of this just based on the premise so I’m really glad to hear that you loved it. I read a book about this subject a few years ago called Faith by the author Jennifer Haigh and it explores many of the same themes you mention. I found it utterly intriguing so I look forward to reading Boyne’s book.

  3. I recently saw John Boyne speak about this book and also his others. Very engaging speaker and his background is certainly used in this book. An author I must get round to reading.

  4. Great review! I think this novel is so emotional and well done. It felt like a really personal novel for Boyne. The doses of humour are a good relief – even if some of them come across as cliches – but I suspect that’s because some of those Irish traits are simply truly characteristic of many people there and don’t feel at all derogatory.

    1. Thanks! I also found this a very moving and emotional book, so I was pleased that it was balanced with some humour – and I agree that it doesn’t feel derogatory at all. I’m glad you enjoyed this book too.

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