‘The Heart’s Invisible Furies’ by John Boyne is a 700 page epic novel about the life of a gay man, Cyril Avery, which also encompasses the social history of Ireland in the second half of the 20th century. The story is told in seven-year increments, starting with the circumstances leading up to Cyril’s birth in Dublin in August 1945 to an unmarried teenage mother, Catherine Goggin, right up until the year when Ireland legalised same-sex marriage by public vote in 2015. Cyril is adopted as a baby by novelist Maude Avery and her banker husband Charles who uses every opportunity to remind Cyril that he is “not a real Avery” with the couple depriving him of any real affection. During adolesence and beyond, Cyril has an unrequited crush on his best friend, Julian Woodbead, and this experience shapes the rest of his life as he struggles to be honest with other people and with himself.
Each chapter sees Cyril unknowingly crossing paths with his biological mother, coming face to face with death in some form and pondering the meaning of happiness and loneliness. We know from the very beginning that Cyril will eventually learn how he is related to Catherine but the circumstances of how this comes about are not revealed until much later. Similarly, he also comes across characters from his early years such as Jack Smoot and Julian in unexpected ways after many years of separation. Even though these repetitions and coincidences might sound contrived or far-fetched, it’s a structural device which is deployed just as effectively here as it has been in so many other epic novels from ‘Great Expectations’ by Charles Dickens to ‘The Goldfinch’ by Donna Tartt where the protagonist is seeking to understand more about their identity.
In a story which deals with homophobic violence and the stigma of AIDS amongst other topics, Boyne is particularly critical of the hypocrisy of politicians and the Catholic Church in a country where homosexuality wasn’t decriminalised until 1993. While the themes may sound heavy and tragedy repeatedly strikes throughout Cyril’s life with devastating consequences, ‘The Heart’s Invisible Furies’ is often a very funny book too. Boyne has an excellent ear for dialogue which is where much of the humour is evident, and despite such seemingly wide variations in tone, it rarely feels uneven.
‘The Heart’s Invisible Furies’ is among the best books I have read so far this year and Cyril is one of the most memorable characters I have come across in a very long time. It is the first novel I have read by Boyne and it certainly won’t be the last.