The Irish writer’s 10th novel for adults examines one man’s life over the course of 70 years to reveal the personal and societal toll of Ireland’s repression of homosexuality.
It’s 1945, and a philandering Catholic priest is throwing 16-year-old Catherine Goggin out of church and the village for being unwed and pregnant as her family looks on silently. With quick strokes and bitter humor, Boyne’s (A History of Loneliness, 2015, etc.) opening scene encapsulates the Irish church’s hypocrisy and utter control of a meek flock. Having taken on the church’s sexual abuse of children in his previous novel, Boyne continues his crusading ways with the quiet keening of this painful, affecting novel. Catherine will travel to Dublin and give birth after saving the life of a gay youth whose partner is beaten to death by his own father. Her son, Cyril, the book’s first-person narrator, is adopted in infancy by a wealthy Dublin couple. He is smitten at 7 with a boy his age who visits the house, and even more so at 14, when they are roommates in school, but he mutes his passion for the handsome, charismatic Julian as they become close friends. As Boyne captures Cyril every seven years, his 20s feature a double life, secret promiscuity and public straightness. Then, he briefly marries (1973), flees Ireland, finds love in Amsterdam (1980), and works with AIDs patients in New York (1987). There, he suffers two wrenching losses—which also, happily, mark the end of Cyril’s tendency to forget he’s a witty, ironic conversationalist and veer close to maudlin self-pity. His later years in Ireland seem to bring the promise of reconciliation on several fronts, but there is still penance and pain until the book’s last word.
A dark novel marred by occasional melodrama but lightened by often hilarious dialogue.