When one conjures a mental image of Ireland, I’d venture to guess that green hills and Guinness are at the forefront. That’s how it was for me, until I caught wind of Ireland’s abortion referendum a month back and did some research into the country’s laws surrounding reproductive rights. It was by happenstance that, that same month, three different people recommended John Boyne’s The Heart’s Invisible Furies to me. I purchased it without any knowledge of the plot and was surprised to discover that it was a sprawling Irish epic; taking place across five decades in Golleen, Cork, Dublin, Amsterdam, and New York; and its contents only served to reinforce how misinformed I was about Ireland; and how much modernization the country has left to accomplish.
The book opens with Catherine Goggin, sixteen, being publicly shamed and physically thrown out of her local Church after her father discovers she is pregnant and confides the new in his Priest. Forced to leave home, Catherine takes a bus to Dublin, where she finds a job in the Dail Eireann [lower house of Irish Parliament] tearoom, and lodging with a young man struggling with his own identity. It is in his flat that she gives birth to the baby that ultimately becomes the story’s protagonist.
Unable to take care of a baby on her tearoom salary, Catherine gives the boy, whom we later discover is called Cyril, up for adoption, and he lands in the hands of Charles and Maude Avery, a couple composed of a serial cheater [both on his taxes and his wife] for a father and a mother with a gift for writing and an open disdain for human interaction. When Charles, seeking legal help, makes the acquaintance of Dublin’s finest solicitor, Max Woodbead, Cyril is introduced to his son, Julian, who becomes his best friend and ultimately alters the course of his life—for better of for worse. The book’s chapters alternate between decades, and cover Cyril’s search to find his own identity, Catherine’s journey to find hers, and their twin quests to find each other.
The Heart’s Invisible Furies is a thinly veiled critique of Ireland as a nation caught in the past; where it was illegal to be gay until 1973 and not frowned upon to kill someone who is, where a doctor can be jailed for fourteen years for performing an abortion, and where priests father children in secret but throw out parishioners for getting pregnant before a marriageable age. The book weaves deftly between light, humorous passages and heart-wrenching ones, something few authors can do capably. I found myself laughing and tearing up in the span of a page, and, John Boyne, the author, who himself grew up gay in Dublin, seemed to have felt the same way; at certain points, the only way to keep going was to laugh at the absurdity of it all.
At nearly 600 pages, the book span’s Cyril’s entire life: his failings and hard-earned successes, his dealings with respective political climates in various countries and the way he comes, slowly and steadily, to terms with his own identity; as the book progressed, I found myself increasingly attached to Cyril; frustrated when he didn’t behave accordingly, proud of him when things went well. While the book was almost “too” readable at times –with certain plot twists coming together almost too nicely, it was, on the whole, a story equal parts moving, engaging, and genuinely educational.