In 1945, a 16-year-old girl is banished from her Irish village because she is unmarried and pregnant. She flees to Dublin where she gives her son up for adoption. Cyril is adopted by a wealthy, unaffectionate couple, Maude and Charles Avery, who constantly remind him that he is “not really an Avery.” The novel, in 7-year increments, focuses on Cyril’s life from birth until the age of 70. He struggles to come to terms with his sexuality and lives in fear because he is gay in a society in which homosexuality is a criminal offense. He remains closeted for many years, resorting to numerous, anonymous sexual liaisons; it is only when he leaves Ireland that he has a loving relationship with another man.
This book is in many ways an indictment of Ireland. At one point, Cyril describes Dublin as “a city I loved at the heart of a country I loathed. A town filled with 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.” Later, in a conversation with Cyril, one character summarizes what is undoubtedly the author’s view of the country: “’What’s wrong with you people?’ he asked, looking at me as if I was clinically insane. ‘What’s wrong with Ireland? Are you all just fucking nuts over there, is that it? Don’t you want each other to be happy?’”
The book focuses on the Catholic Church’s dominance. The first sentence of the novel draws attention to the church’s hypocrisy: “Long before we discovered that he had fathered two children by two different women, one in Drimoleague and one in Clonakilty, Father James Monroe stood on the altar of the Church of Our Lady of the Sea, in the parish of Goleen, West Cork, and denounced my mother as a whore.” The priest allows that the father of the unborn child can “’give his confession and be forgiven’” but no such compassion is shown to the woman.
Homosexuality is such a crime in Ireland that a father who kills his homosexual son is not punished: “’The jury let him off, but no great surprises there. A jury of twelve other fat old Irish bastards who said that his son was mentally disordered and so he had the right to do what he did to him.’” The book ends with Ireland’s legalization of same-sex marriage, so progress is made in the country by the end of the book, though Boyne shows that attitudes towards gays are changing more slowly. Interestingly, the book’s release predated only by a few months the election of an openly gay man as Taoiseach.
Politicians are also shown to be hypocrites; a young up-and-coming politician who is being seen as a potential future minister speaks of his plans: “’I don’t like drinking in my own constituency. . . . People come up to me all the time over there and ask me about potholes and electricity charges and will I come to their kids’ sports day at school to hand out the medals, and you know, I really couldn’t give a fuck about any of that stuff. . . . [I’m interested in] climbing the ladder. Reaching the highest rung that I can. . . . Why can’t I just seek advancement and try to get to the top and then, when I’m there, if I can do something positive with it, then that’s great, and if I can’t, sure I’ll just enjoy being the top man.’” This same politician is gay but is getting married to a woman because “’My constituents expect that of me. The party expects that of me. There’s no way that I’m going anywhere unless I have a wife and children.’”
There are many humourous scenes in the novel. A woman argues that her son is not guilty of a murder for which he is incarcerated: “’But there’s no real evidence, other than fingerprints, DNA and an eyewitness.’” A couple makes disparaging comments about gays, not realizing that Cyril is gay: “’We never would have said such things if we’d known that you were the gay homosexual. . . . We’d never say such thing to a person’s face . . . Of course, I should have realized . . Now that I look at that jumper you’re wearing, I suppose I should have guessed.’” A woman has a gay couple as roommates, but she is rather naïve: “And the bed itself was hardly big enough for one, let alone the pair of them sleeping top-to-tail. It was no wonder, she told herself, that she heard the most peculiar sounds emerging from there during the nights. The poor boys must have had a terrible time trying to sleep.” The novel deals with some very serious issues, so the comic scenes are a welcome reprieve.
Watching Cyril’s personal growth is one of the enjoyable aspects of the novel. At the beginning he is totally cowed by society’s attitudes to homosexuals. He lives in shame, telling no one about his sexual orientation. As a young man, he is also as a friend describes him: “A selfish, arrogant, conceited shit who thinks the world has done you such a bad turn that you can do whatever you like to get back at it.’” Later, we see someone who laughs at people’s ignorance, takes pride in not deceiving “a single person about my sexuality,” and realizes there’s “’no reason why he shouldn’t be held accountable for the things he did in the past. ‘”
The novel is lengthy but very readable, though there are weaknesses. One problem is the preponderance of coincidence. For instance, several times characters encounter each other in different parts of the world. It seems that the writer was aware of his use of barely credible coincidences because he has Cyril commenting, “It was possible, of course, that it had been pure coincidence, that the use of that phrase . . . was just chance.” Another problem is that women have a habit of becoming pregnant after having sex only once. Perhaps it was intentional, but some of the characters are portrayed as being rather stupid. A university student doesn’t know the word fatwa? Another university student doesn’t know who Klaus Barbie was? A politician doesn’t know the difference between libel and slander?
I had not read any of Boyne’s books other than his The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas; having enjoyed that one and this one as well, I think I need to read more by this writer.