I really enjoyed reading John Boyne’s two most recent novels The Heart’s Invisible Furies and A Ladder to the Sky last year and this week I have read his 2015 novel ‘A History of Loneliness’ which tackles the child abuse scandal in the Catholic Church in Ireland. It tells the story of Odran Yates who enters Conliffe College seminary at the age of 17 in the 1970s after his mother informs him that he has a vocation. It is there that he first meets Tom Cardle, and the two remain friends despite Tom moving between several different parishes and Odran having his suspicions about why that keeps happening. It isn’t until many years later that Odran is forced to come to terms with what happened and recognise his own complicity.
The chronology of ‘A History of Loneliness’ is non-linear with each chapter set in a different year spanning from a defining event in Odran’s childhood in 1964 to the fallout of the scandal in 2013 when he is approaching retirement. The structure is the main strength of the book as the plot would have had much less impact if events had been revealed in the order in which they had occurred. Odran’s attempts to justify his actions and inactions both to himself and to other characters gradually make it clear just how passive he is and how he chose not to see what was really going on.
As with the other books I have read by Boyne, the fictional characters occasionally interact with real people. During his time at the Vatican, Odran is chosen to become tea server to Pope John Paul I, even becoming partly implicated in his sudden death in 1978. Boyne’s attempts to show the power of the Church hierarchy perhaps stretches credibility to its limits here. However, there are also scenes such as the radio interview between Cardinal Cordington and Liam Scott which are very powerfully written and show the devastating consequences of many years of silence and cover-up.
’A History of Loneliness’ is Boyne’s twelfth novel and the first to be set in his native Ireland. The tone and levels of subtlety are a bit mixed in places, but overall it is very effectively done and Boyne handles a bleak topic compassionately.