A priest in Ireland provides a lens on his brethren’s sexual abuse of young boys.
Best known for The Boy in the Striped Pajamas (2006), a Holocaust novel for children, Boyne here creates a character who remains stubbornly oblivious as he gets hints of homosexuality and sexual abuse from his youth through his seminary years and as a teacher and parish priest. In a story that jumps back and forth among different periods of his life, Father Odran Yates, the narrator, endures a family tragedy and tries to ignore his sister’s early-onset dementia, two of the rare elements in the book untinged by sex. Tom Cardle, his roommate in the seminary and then longtime friend, exposes Odran, at a distance, to sexual desire and then puzzles him as the ordained Tom is too rapidly transferred from one parish to another. Odran becomes a tea server for Pope Paul VI and the short-lived John Paul I during a pointed but implausible interlude in Rome, where he has his libido stirred when he falls hard for a barista. Other Boyne novels—he has written 13 for adults and children—present his take on historical incidents, as this novel does briefly with the 33-day papacy and broadly by putting two characters at the center of Ireland’s final unraveling of the complicity of church and police in the sexual abuse scandal. Boyne’s strength is dialogue, always sharp and flowing, especially abetted by Irish idiom. His weaknesses here are neon-obvious allusions and a somewhat clunky structure. In between those extremes, he shows a fine sympathy in some of the book’s best scenes for the change that good shepherds saw in their flocks, from worshipful respect to loathing.
There might have been more art in a subtler take on this Irish horror, but Boyne has conveyed well the message most needed, that silence and denial are heinous crimes as well.