‘I’ve spent so much time pushing the boat out that I forgot to jump on and now it’s out beyond the harbour on the high seas, but it’s very nice to look at.’
Coming to the end of his epic retelling of Cyril Avery’s lifetime, John Boyne indirectly reveals his philosophy for storytelling through two characters having a discussion about Jeffrey Archer:
‘Have you ever read Jeffrey Archer?’
‘I haven’t,’ I admitted.
‘Oh, he’s wonderful,’ she said. ‘He tells a story, and that’s what I like. Does this fella tell a story? He doesn’t spend twenty pages describing the colour of the sky?’
To his credit, Boyne can spin a good yarn himself and this ‘his most ambitious work to date’ is a massive achievement. From birth to death, we hear the story of Cyril Avery, an illegitimate child who grows up into a homosexual man struggling to make sense of a hostile world and in particular a hostile home nation. In between, Boyne treats us to light-hearted and dark moments in equal measure. Cameos from Brendan Behan, Éamon De Valera, Charles Haughey and even Nelson’s Pillar place the novel in it’s context as Cyril stumbles through the decades.
This book finds Boyne in impressive writing form with many memorable set-pieces featuring throughout the 592 pages. The opening chapter alone is an example of masterful storytelling as a fallen woman is ejected from her church, family, parish and county in one fell swoop and in the most public and brutal of manners.
Her son emerges as the story’s main character and he grows up in a world filled to the brim with love and hatred. Ireland is not an easy place for Cyril to grow up and be who he was born to be. Dublin and Ireland is full of ‘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.’
When Cyril eventually flees the country in search of the freedom that he needs to grow and truly find himself, others cannot understand the place where he has come from. One character remarks that ‘it sounds like a backward place. A people with no empathy for anyone.’ Where ‘priests decide everything.’
The chilling truth is that this is the truth. Ireland, amongst other things, is the historic home to the Magdalene laundries, countless sexual abuse scandals within the Church, the horror of the Tuam babies and decades of oppression towards homosexuality. There is no hiding place from these facts and John Boyne brilliantly sheds a light on the dark side of the Emerald Isle in this novel.
‘They have no compassion, do they?’ I asked. ‘They talk about Christianity and yet it’s just a concept to them, not a way of life at all.
Above all else though, this is Cyril’s story and from birth to death we enjoy him as an honest and innocent character simply trying to find happiness and love in a cruel world.
Would I recommend this book to a friend?
Yes. This novel ticks many boxes. It has elements of truth, humour, sadness and social commentary. John Boyne fans will love it as will anyone else who enjoys a good story.
- I would love to know how the author’s own life experiences influenced this novel.
- I detected an element of Jessie Burton’s The Miniaturist at one stage. Did anyone else?