The Heart’s Invisible Furies by John Boyne review – sin and torment in Catholic Ireland

A picaresque odyssey tracks changing attitudes towards sexual freedoms over the last 70 years and rages against the church

John Boyne’s new novel opens in the small west Cork village of Goleen, in 1945, during mass in the parish church. Instead of giving a sermon, Father James Monroe rises to denounce 16-year-old Catherine Goggin, recently discovered to be pregnant. The priest calls her up to the altar to shame her before family and congregation, before kicking her out of the church and banishing her from the parish. Boyne introduces this scene by informing us that it will be known later that this priest has himself fathered two children in the area, and his brutality is inflamed rather then tempered by hypocrisy.

Catherine’s journey to Dublin is the beginning of a picaresque, lolloping odyssey for the individual characters and for the nation that confines them. As the novel begins, Ireland is a young republic and effectively a theocracy. The church writes and enforces the laws controlling sexuality and social behaviour. The opening episode is narrated by the child in Catherine’s womb. He grows up as Cyril Avery, adopted child of a famous Irish female novelist, and tells the story of his life up to 2015. By then the permanent, unquestionable structure of Catholic Ireland will have all but vanished, as the power of the church dissolves in scandal and shame.

Boyne’s sombre 2014 novel A History of Loneliness anatomised such corruption and abuse, and he returns to track these seismic changes in Irish society with a broader, bawdier and more comedic sweep of narrative in The Heart’s Invisible Furies. Historical figures mingle with fictional ones, words are put into mouths, gossip simmers and reputations shudder crazily. The young Cyril and his friends drink with Brendan Behan, and want to know how much of his novel Borstal Boy is fiction and how much autobiography. The past is never neutral, but must be fought over and claimed. Cyril, a boy who knows he is gay in a society that hates his sexuality, will take decades to unlearn a history of crippling guilt and shame, while at the same time truly weighing his own weaknesses. The book blazes with anger as it commemorates lives wrecked by social contempt and self‑loathing.

Who, then, is Cyril, whom we first encounter as an unborn child shielded by his mother’s arms from the kicks of the priest? At first the novel tells us more about what this child is than about who he is. He is born into a scene of extreme violence, and then given up by his mother to a family that always insists that he is “not really an Avery”. In fact his adoptive father invites him to think of his upbringing as a “tenancy” which will last for 18 years, rather than as a permanent place within the family. This definition of Cyril’s existence as a negative will take many years and much experience to overcome.

By the next section of the novel it is 1952 and Cyril is a watchful seven-year-old, used to masking his emotions. While vividly observant in his interior monologue, he is shy and silent in company. “Even at that tender age I knew that there was something about me that was different and that it would be impossible ever to put right.”

However, the entire novel becomes a vigorous argument against such a certainty. The Jesuits may say “Give me a child until he is seven and I will show you the man”, but Boyne’s fiction argues passionately that self-transformation is not only possible but essential. There are two key relationships in Cyril’s life: the first is with his childhood friend Julian Woodbead, who possesses all the boldness and beauty Cyril feels he lacks; the second is with the Dutch doctor Bastiaan, whom Cyril meets when he goes to live in Amsterdam. Bastiaan is a liberator, drawn entirely in light: warm, humorous, self‑accepting, loving and true towards Cyril during their years together. There is a thinness to this character, and the sly, comedic gusto with which Boyne suffuses the earlier part of the novel is absent: Bastiaan remains a symbolic, idealised partner rather than a complex or convincing man.

The narrative energy flags somewhat as Cyril’s story approaches the present day. Boyne’s fictional portrait of postwar Ireland and its people is nightmarish but utterly compelling. While the 21st century may be a much better place to live, it doesn’t seem to charge Boyne’s imagination with the same force. The Irish people vote in favour of gay marriage in a referendum. Some of the ghosts of the past are appeased, but it is the sorrows of those ghosts that dominate the novel and cannot be woven into a fabric of restitution or hope.

Boyne’s enraged vision is his great strength in The Heart’s Invisible Furies. The appalling comedy of Cyril’s childhood and youth, the vigour, the mess, the stir and life and horror of it all form the heart of a substantial achievement.

• This article was amended on 5 July 2021. Cyril’s childhood friend is Julian, not Maurice, Woodbead.

• Helen Dunmore’s latest novel, Birdcage Walk, is published by Hutchinson on 3 March. The Heart’s Invisible Furies is published by Doubleday. To order a copy for £12.74 (RRP £16.99) go to or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £10, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of £1.99.

Helen Dunmore

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Girl, Balancing and Other Stories by Helen Dunmore review – her final work
This posthumous collection from the much-loved author, focusing on motherhood, war and women under threat, is an act of tender commemoration

Blake Morrison

22, Jun, 2018 @6:30 AM

Article image
Birdcage Walk by Helen Dunmore review – a marriage suffused with menace
A haunting depiction of domestic constraints set in Bristol at the time of the French Revolution

Clare Clark

17, Mar, 2017 @7:30 AM

Article image
A Traveller at the Gates of Wisdom by John Boyne review – an ambitious era-hopping epic
Characters are reincarnated as a visionary craftsman explores his destiny in a story that roams from ancient Rome to Elizabethan London and beyond

Marcel Theroux

06, Aug, 2020 @6:30 AM

Article image
Walking the Invisible by Michael Stewart review – following in the Brontës’ footsteps
A walking tour of the north of England becomes a celebration of the Brontës’ work and a love letter to the wily, windy places that inspired them

Anita Sethi

15, Jul, 2021 @6:30 AM

Article image
The Death of Vivek Oji by Akwaeke Emezi review – a painfully invisible existence
This tender, visceral novel follows a character who is both dead and alive, male and female

Sara Collins

03, Sep, 2020 @6:30 AM

Article image
Exposure by Helen Dunmore review – a perilous journey into the past
England is gripped by cold war paranoia and a family is torn apart, in a thrilling novel with uncanny echoes of The Railway Children

Kate Clanchy

23, Jan, 2016 @7:30 AM

Article image
Mrs Osmond by John Banville review – superb Henry James pastiche
This cunning sequel to The Portrait of a Lady is a remarkable novel in its own right

Edmund White

14, Oct, 2017 @6:30 AM

Article image
Ashland & Vine by John Burnside review – the redemptive power of listening
An elderly woman tells the story of her life to a young alcoholic in this lyrical, thought-provoking tale which thumbs its nose at narrative convention

Marcel Theroux

21, Jan, 2017 @7:30 AM

Article image
Agent Running in the Field by John le Carré review – thriller laced with Brexit fury
The master of the spy genre takes aim at Brexit and Trump in a classy entertainment about political ideals and deception

Steven Poole

17, Oct, 2019 @6:30 AM

Article image
The Sunken Land Begins to Rise Again by M John Harrison review – brilliantly unsettling
Harrison is fabulously alert to the spaces between things in this novel of collapsing certainties in a haunted England

Olivia Laing

19, Jun, 2020 @6:30 AM