John Boyne’s The Heart’s Invisible Furies opens in 1945 in the small, conservative village of Goleen in west Cork, Ireland. Instead of a nostalgic introduction to Boyne’s homeland of sweeping cliffs and vibrant greenery, the novel begins inside a church where Father James Monroe denounces pregnant 16-year-old Catherine Goggin as a whore, before banishing her from the Parish.
The above scene is narrated by Catherine’s unborn child, who grows up to be the novel’s central protagonist, Cyril Avery. He is adopted out at birth, and the novel chronicles the story of his life: his struggles, his loneliness, and his search for love and connection in all its forms. While the majority of the story follows Cyril, the introduction to Catherine in the novel’s opening is critical, because it establishes the context in which the story takes place. In 1945, Ireland is a young republic and effectively a theocracy and, indeed, much of the novel is predicated on this intertwining of church and state: the way in which religion and staunch conservatism bleed into the social and cultural practices of the day. In this sense, the novel is about Catherine and Cyril seeking to liberate themselves—in different ways—from the oppression of the Church and the trauma it has caused them in some shape or form.
Boyne depicts corruption and abuse at the hands of the Church through an analysis of the long and difficult history of LGBTQ+ rights in the 20th century through to the present day. Cyril knows he is gay in a society that condemns his sexuality, and the book follows the decades that it takes him to unlearn the crippling shame and self-loathing that has been instilled into him, while also grappling with his own failings. The novel often reads as an angry condemnation of Ireland’s past and a commiseration for the lives that were wrecked by social contempt and malice. However, unlike some books which are part of the LGBTQI+ canon,The Heart’s Invisible Furies doesn’t fit the ‘tragedy porn’ mould. It’s sad, sure, but that sadness isn’t predicated on giving the queer characters a tragic ending as a sort of punishment for their sexuality, or as representative of how terrible life is if you’re gay. Rest assured, the emotion within this novel feels real, it feels earned, and without spoiling anything, it feels necessary to the story. Through it all, there’s a lot of good, including an embrace of the mess, the vigour, and the strange beauty of life.