The Heart’s Invisible Furies by John Boyne

For a book to get five-stars, I want to laugh and cry. I want to whoop with joy when a character triumphs but equally, I want to have my heart broken (just a little). Basically, I want a million feelings and Cyril Avery, the star of John Boyne’s big, ramshackle novel, The Heart’s Invisible Furies, delivers it all.

There’s great emphasis from the outset that Cyril Avery is not a real Avery – he’s adopted by the peculiar but not inherently unkind, Charles and Maude Avery.

I was not a real Avery and would not be looked after financially in adulthood in the manner that a real Avery would have been. ‘Think of this more as a tenancy, Cyril,’ he told me – they had named me Cyril for a spaniel they’d once owned and loved – ‘an eighteen-year tenancy. But during that time there’s no reason why we shouldn’t all get along, is there?’

Charles is a banker, with a history of tax evasion. Maude is an author whose books received positive reviews but miniscule sales, “…something that pleased her enormously, for she considered popularity in the bookshops to be vulgar.’ Cyril, a quiet and accommodating child, seems accepting of his role in his odd family. He’s left to his own devices, receiving little attention or love from Charles and Maude. While the situation could be construed as cruel, Boyne instead makes the relationship between the three one of the novel’s comic highlights, bolstered by Cyril’s wry observations and reminisces –

I always called them Charles and Maude, never ‘Father’ and ‘Mother’. This was on Charles’s insistence as I wasn’t a real Avery. It didn’t bother me particularly but I know it made other people uncomfortable and once, in school, when I referred to them thus, a priest punched me around the ears and told me off for being modern.

When Cyril meets Julian Woodbead at age seven, his life changes. Julian is daring and charismatic, and from the outset, Cyril is in awe of his new friend. And so their story unfolds.

‘What’s sex?’ I asked.
‘You really don’t know?’ he asked.
‘No,’ I said and he took great delight in describing in detail actions that to me seemed not just unpleasant and unsanitary but possibly criminal.

There’s an Irvingesque quality to this big, blustery novel – a saga; a story of a journey (both literal and existential); close examination of themes of identity and belonging; some mad and preposterous moments; and fanciful plot twists. Like Irving, Boyne fuels the story by exposing hypocrisy and hate – in this case, generated by the Catholic Church – alongside exceptionally memorable characters that we can’t help but care deeply for.

Cyril, looking back on Maude’s novels, observes that ‘…she understood completely the condition of loneliness and how it undermines us all, forcing us to make choices that we know are completely wrong for us.’ It’s a sentiment that underpins much of the action in this book and Boyne gently explores themes of loneliness, isolation and authenticity against the brutal backdrop of dogmatic religious beliefs.

Mention must be made of the superb sense of place and time (the book spans 1940-2000s), particularly the brief but revealing descriptions of Dublin. On her arrival from rural Ireland, Cyril’s biological mother notes that Dublin was –

…a place she had heard of all her life that was supposedly full of whores and atheists but that seemed much like home, only with more cars, bigger buildings and better clothes.

Decades later, Cyril observes –

The place of my birth and a city I loved at the heart of a country I loathed. A town filled with good-hearted innocents, miserable bigots, adulterous husbands, conniving churchmen, paupers who received no help from the State, and millionaires who sucked the lifeblood from it.

I’ve made this book sound grim but it’s not. Boyne tackles serious issues and some tragic and shocking events with carefully (and perfectly) pitched humour. There’s warmth and hope and so much goodness in this story and I loved every moment.

I received my copy of The Heart’s Invisible Furies from the publisher, Random House UK, via NetGalley, in exchange for an honest review.

5/5 A book that will squeeze your heart.

‘My daddy likes a Guinness,’ said my mother, … ‘He goes down to the pub every Wednesday and Friday night, as regular as clockwork. On Wednesdays he limits himself to three pints with his pals and comes home at a respectable time but on Friday nights he gets polluted. He’ll often come in at two o’clock in the morning and rouse my mother from her bed to cook him a plate of sausages and a ring of black pudding and if she says no, then he raises his fists to her.’


19 responses

  1. I read it at the same time as you and felt the same way Kate, it’s a sprawling, epic novel that is both comic and deep at the same time, spanning the 70 years of Cyril’s life and his attempt to live it honestly, to be himself and the impact of the expectations of his culture in preventing him from doing so. I found it truly enlightening, the way he succeeds in entertaining the reader while portraying that significant historical truth of how a culture can contribute to the dysfunction of an individual, especially outside the so called ‘norm’, which is a falsity anyway, given humans are so varied in so many ways.

    An excellent, moving story, one i think everyone ought to read, thought provoking indeed.

    • It’s pretty hard to get that balance between humour and sensitive/ tragic/ confronting issues/ history right but it’s perfect in this book. I will be telling EVERYONE to read it.

    • I haven’t said much about the storyline but I think it’s better to go in not knowing much and instead let yourself be swept up in the story. It’s superb.

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