The Heart’s Invisible Furies by John Boyne

hearts-invisible-furiesThis book has been sitting on my shelf since last summer, when I got it in my Book of the Month box. People have been raving about it ever since then, and now that I’ve finally gotten around to reading it, I can add my voice to the chorus: The Heart’s Invisible Furies is definitely a remarkable novel, and one of the best books I’ve read this year.

Beginning in Ireland in 1945, the novel follows Cyril Avery through his life, from his childhood through to his sixties. The novel swings from postwar Ireland to Amsterdam to New York City in the 1980s, and back to Ireland in the first decades of the 21st century.

This is a novel about a gay man growing up at a time in Ireland when it was illegal to be gay. And while the plot spins outward from there, meandering through Cyril’s life in many wonderful, surprising, and heartbreaking ways, this lies at the heart of the whole book: what it means to be someone whom your country, a country you love, deems wrong. How deeply, and lastingly, that feeling can worm its way through a life.

I’ve read a lot of reviews of this novel that describe the rollercoaster of emotions the book takes its readers on. There’s joy and humor, heartbreak, violence, and, pain, tenderness, frustrating mistakes, injustice, shame, celebration. Cyril’s life is full of all the things that might happen to a human over the course of seventy years on the planet, and because it is such a character-driven book, it makes for a deeply emotional read.

But I haven’t seen a lot of reviews that explicitly address the depth of the queer suffering in this novel. For at least the first 2/3 of the book, homophobia is the driving force behind the plot. Just about everything that happens stems from homophobia, some of it (the most painful parts to read) deeply internalized. All the violence, the suffering, the loses, the hurt between people, the loneliness, the big mistakes–just about everything bad that happens, to Cyril or because of Cyril or in the lives of people that Cyril knows, is because of homophobia.

This is not a criticism–it felt painfully honest, so much so that I felt it physically in my body. But it was also excruciating. I loved everything about this book–it was big hearted and beautiful–but I don’t want to minimize the extent of the queer suffering. Yes, there is pain and suffering. Yes, there is also redemption, and love, and connection. But it is a very specific kind of pain, and also a very specific kind of redemption and connection. This is a story about queer survival. Cyril survives.

Boyne sets his readers up for this, structurally. The book is split into three parts: Shame, Exile, and Peace. I think part of the reason the book is so powerful, and why I loved it so much, despite how hard the first 400 pages were to read, was precisely because of this setup, and because, in the end, being queer brought as much joy to Cyril’s life as it did pain.

There’s a line near the end, where Cyril says to someone: “It seems like it would have been so simple now to have been honest with everyone…But it didn’t feel like that at the time.”  As a person reading this book in 2018, there were times I thought the same thing. But Boyne expertly captures place and a time, so that everything that Cyril goes through or does or says or doesn’t do or say, felt real and inevitable. I could relate to the closeted teenage Cyril and the sixty-five year old Cyril looking back at his life. The whole story had a historical sweep, but it was always intimate.

I also loved the way Boyne used time–the novel is told in sections each seven years apart–to explore how much relationships and people change. Some events become muted with time, others become more vivid. It’s not easy to write a book that takes place over seventy years that feels whole and cohesive, but that is exactly what Boyne did. The scope allowed Boyne to tell a story about loss and survival that would have been impossible with the passing of decades.

Another thing that made this book so good was the complexity of the characters. I especially appreciated the major female characters, who were all whole, nuanced people with shifting desires and their own rich emotional lives.

In the first third of the book especially, there was as much sexism and misogyny as there was homophobia. It came from just about every male character, and felt violent and exhausting. But it did not feel gratuitous, and that was because of the strength of the women in the novel. These women had to deal with that misogyny every day of their lives, but not one of them was a cut-out or a plot point. They all lived lives of their own choosing, despite the world and the people they loved hurting them, degrading them, and trying to make them invisible.

My favorite thing about the whole book was what it had to say about family–queer family, chosen family, birth family. There are so many permeations of family here, so much richness in all the ways that Cyril builds family throughout his life. There is a lot of loss mixed up in family, too, and messiness, but it’s ultimately a book about the ways that family–in all its endless variations–can hold a person throughout a life.

In the days since I finished it, I’ve been thinking a lot about how hard this book was to read, and about whether there’s a place in the world for books like this: books built on queer suffering. There’s too much queer suffering in literature, and there are times when I am simply exhausted by it, when I cannot stomach another story that revolves around it. But of course there is a place for books like this one, because queer suffering (and not just for white gay men like Cyril) is alive and well, and as long as it is, making art about it is still important.

The tenderness, the moments of levity, the obvious compassion Boyne had for his characters, the surprising turns the story took, the raw honesty, and the depth of the growth Cyril experienced over his life–it all added up to a book that felt bigger than the sum of its parts, a book steeped in queer suffering that also managed to be about so much more than that. A book that, yes, made me weep, but one that also filled me up.

 

 

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