A History of Loneliness by John Boyne

Posted by Sue Leonard on Friday 5th December 2014
A History of Loneliness by John Boyne.
Published by Doubleday
Reviewed by Sue Leonard.
Published in Books Ireland, November, 2014.
‘I did not become ashamed of being Irish until I was well into the middle years of my life.’
So starts John Boyne’s fictional scrutiny of the Catholic church in Ireland since the seventies. It’s a great opening, and an apt introduction to one Father Odran Yates. The first chapter, which shows Father Odran eating dinner with his sister, Hannah, and her introverted younger son Jonas is a revealing one. His narrative voice, one of slight pomposity, is clearly established.
Aspects of Odran’s character are revealed too. He seems afraid of the realities of life, and he can’t face trouble head on. He’s aware of this character trait, telling the reader of his innocence and inability to confront difficult situations. And when Hannah has lapses of memory, and for a moment believes that her late husband is still alive, Odran ignores his nephew’s pleas for help, and he abruptly leaves the house. In a sentence which pretty much sums up the theme of the novel, he says,
‘I walked away quickly and nervously, for there was something there, some horror looming over us all which I felt ill-equipped to cope with.’
That scene takes place in 2001. Thereafter, Boyne weaves around, going forwards to 2006, backwards to 1964, then 1980, then 1972, and so on, zigzagging through the past, whilst gradually bringing us up to the present. This structure is complex, but it works superbly, and allows Boyne to drip feed the events that have led to Odran’s extreme  passivity. By the close of the novel, we understand exactly why he feels ill equipped to confront harsh reality.
Odran’s childhood is happy enough, until his father changes career, convinced that  he is destined to become a great actor. After farcical scenes during performances of the Plough and the Stars at the Abbey, his father sinks into a drink fuelled torpor, and a family tragedy ensues. Whereupon Odran’s mother has a revelation whilst watching the Late Late Show, and tells her son he has a vocation for the priesthood.
Odran doesn’t argue. Indeed, entering  his seminary- Clonliffe College, he feels it is exactly where he belongs. After excellent exam results, he secures a treasured place to do his final year of study in Rome, and once there, is appointed to an unusual job in the Vatican. When something happens there that halts his rise through the ranks, he seems nonplussed. He hasn’t ambition; all he wants is to be a good priest.
When, after twenty seven years at Terenure College, an exclusive boy’s school, Odran is transferred to a rural parish he is appalled. He loves living at the college, and feels that he does his priestly duties to perfection. But the portly Archbishop Cordington insists on it; he is to replace a friend from college days, Tom Cardle, a priest who has already served in eleven parishes.
2006 was the year the Murphy Report was first implemented, and the extent of clerical abuse was starting to unfold. But Odran never for a minute imagines his friend could be involved; even though Cordington is dropping heavy hints.  He’s a bit of an innocent abroad – rather like a hero from one of the EM Forster novels he once discussed with Pope John Paul first, before his sudden demise.
This isn’t the only literary reference in A History of Loneliness. Odran learns of Tom’s misogynist tendencies when they discuss the works of Roddy Doyle, and there’s a quote from John Banville too.
The author has fun with the character Jonas. Coming out as gay, he writes fiction and becomes a literary success. Boyne describes the writer’s life, revolving, as it does round book tours and literary festivals, and he seems to revel in describing the author’s detractors. He gives us a humorous take on  a reader’s begrudgery, when Odran meets a former pupil in Waterstones. (A store where the author once worked.) One can’t help but imagine he’s basing the scene on his own experience.
In Ireland, we’ve become  somewhat inured to the scandals of the church, and are appalled by both the perpetrators, and those in power who covered it up, but what must it feel like to be a once revered priest who now finds himself as enemy number one?  Through Odran, the reader gets a pretty good idea.
Entering Clonliffe in the early seventies at seventeen, the boys were treated with the greatest respect. Ordained, and entering parishes, they were the most trusted member of the community. Sometimes, the attention became a bit much.
In 1980 Odran is on a crowded train, on his way to visit Tom Cardle. He’s happy to stand, but everyone, including an elderly man and a pregnant woman want to give up their seats for him. He’s not hungry, but the battle amongst the passengers to buy him a sandwich he doesn’t want  becomes pretty heated. Frustrated, Odran shouts at the man who wins out.
‘If they’d just leave me alone, I thought. All of them. If I could just get a bit of peace.’
Fast forward to 2010, and Odran is no longer trusted with a group of altar boys. He can’t step into a room with them, unless there is a parent present to act as chaperone. This appals and angers him in equal measure.  He can’t bear what his life has become, and rails at his guilty colleagues, calling them bastards for destroying the peaceful life he once enjoyed.
Near the end of the novel, Boyne recounts a radio interview with the obnoxious Archbishop Cordington, in which comments taken at face value, seem too fantastical even for fiction; except of course, they are close enough to the truth. Odran listens to his superior digging himself into a hole, and is horrified.  Surely, he thinks, the church will be unable to recover from such an arrogant denial of responsibility.
And if he despises Cordington, Odran doesn’t have a lot of truck with the Polish Pope either. He wonders whether life would have been different for himself, for the church, and indeed for the world, if his friend, Pope John Paul 1st hadn’t met such an untimely end.
But is he as innocent of blame as he professes? Or are all the ‘good ‘ priests who have been conducting themselves with dignity throughout the years guilty of the sin of omission? That is one of the questions Boyne is addressing and it’s a valid one.
Boyne has built up an impressive body of work since his first novel was published in 2000. Unlike most of his peers, he avoided writing about his own country, preferring to base his novels around a historical event.
Known Internationally since the phenomenal success of his first book for children, he has been growing his reputation with each of his eight adult novels. He’s explored Tsarist Russia; set a book in the first world war, written a novel around the Abdication scandal, and penned a ghost story. This is the first time he has turned to Ireland for inspiration.
The abuse scandals are merely the backdrop used by Boyne to explore the state of loneliness. Whether suited for the priestly role, or pushed into it by the conventions of the time, Boyne shows how the constraints of the job; the lack of family and conventional friendship, impact on many of the men, the good and the flawed.
Odran is clearly a good man. I liked his gentle voice; his innocence and lack of worldly sense. When challenged he says, ‘Ah now.’ There are times when his humour shines through; times when his sense, and humanity make a strong appearance; which is in sharp contrast to most of the priests we meet in the novel, but sometimes his extreme naivety strained my sense of belief.
Is it credible that, in 2011, a  clerical collar wearing priest would take a stranger’s small boy by the hand, walk him out of Brown Thomas, and buy him an ice-cream?  The scenes in Rome rankled with me too. Whilst it was enjoyable having an ear into the goings on in the Vatican, this section just didn’t quite ring true.
There are times, too, when a little too much is spelt out. I felt the author didn’t quite trust the reader to understand all the nuances of the plot. Things were explained that I had guessed early on. But those are just quibbles.
This is an important and an engrossing book, with a fascinating cast of characters, including some superbly drawn minor ones. Odran is a slightly unreliable narrator, as he is obviously deeply in denial. He holds back many of the salient facts, and this helped the pace which positively zips along.
In choosing to concentrate on the abuse scandals, Boyne may not have meant to write a state of the nation novel, but such is the scope of this work, as it sweeps across the years from poverty, to boom, back to recession again, that he has unwittingly achieved just that.
© Sue Leonard. 2014

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