I didn’t know what to expect from The Heart’s Invisible Furies. The jacket description was pretty sparse—it talks about a boy named Cyril Avery, who is not a real Avery, just an adopted one, and mentions that he struggles through his life. It name drops Julian Woodbead, with whom he has a close relationship that will have far reaching consequences. Basically.
Talk about understating a book that spans from Cyril’s childhood in Ireland, to his adulthood in the Netherlands, to his life in New York. Author John Boyne rips through some socially and culturally significant moments: acts by the IRA in Ireland, the ‘80s AIDS crisis, the destruction of the Twin Towers—shall I go on? We meet Cyril as a boy in 1952, although the book starts with his birth and his teenage mother in 1945.
Boyne is unflinching in his writing about some truly horrible, deplorable moments. I had to put the book down a few times, because Cyril is so human and vulnerable and I didn’t want to see what horrible thing was in store for him next. It’s not all bad. Cyril gets plenty of good moments too. Because Boyne takes the reader through his whole life, we get to see Cyril grow up and into a kind-hearted, bitingly sarcastic, and—finally—honest person. Because Cyril has some things he needs to be honest about. There are a lot of wonderful secondary characters too. In fact, there are a lot of characters, period, some who pop in and out, and some who the whole book really revolves around. Boyne leaves threads of story all over the place, hidden mostly to Cyril and not to the reader at all. I spent the whole book mentally chanting at Cyril to put something together.
I love the quirkiness of Cyril’s adopted parents—his nearly neurotic mother Maude, who becomes one of Ireland’s most revered novelists, much to her chagrin. According to her, popularity is vulgar. His womanizing, adopted father constantly tells Cyril he’s not a real Avery and should expect to take care of himself once he’s 18. They barely realize he’s a child at all.
Boyne is harsh about Ireland’s backwardness—its tendency to disown young women who get pregnant, the Catholic church’s deathgrip on political and social reform, its treatment of gay men and women. I think he mostly commends Ireland’s improvements, by the end.
There are some hilarious moments in the book. Boyne is cuttingly funny (and equally heart-wrenching).
My favourite, non-consequential sliver is this little bit of dialogue that Boyne writes during a conversation the characters are having about Ronald Reagan, who is ignoring the AIDS crisis, which the main characters are quite invested in:
“He’s not stupid at all,” said Courteney, shaking her head. “No one gets to be President of the United States if they’re stupid. He might be marginally less intelligent than anyone who has ever held the office before him, but stupid? No. Actually, I think he’s quite smart in some ways. He knows exactly what he’s doing. He uses his charm to get himself out of difficult situations. And people love him for it. They’ll forgive him anything.”
I can’t decide what would be more delightful: if Boyne had written this with the knowledge that Trump would be/is president, or without it even being a blip on his radar. Knowing what we know now, I find this tiny bit of dialogue hilarious either way.
John Boyne was at Events 67 (The Literary Cabaret), 73 (A Boy’s Life), and 89 (The Sunday Brunch) at the 2017 Vancouver Writers Festival.