Book Review: The Heart’s Invisible Furies by John Boyne

The Heart's Invisible FuriesTHE HEART’S INVISIBLE FURIES by John Boyne
First Published by Hogarth Press on February 9, 2017

My Rating: ★★★☆☆

I started reading The Heart’s Invisible Furies back in January, put it away for awhile, and then finally picked it up again in a buddy read with Emily @ Literary Elephant. (Thanks for agreeing to read it with me, Emily!) This novel is a huge favourite among readers of both commercial and literary fiction (it has a rating of 4.47 on Goodreads), and based on its synopsis it sounds like the kind of book I’d enjoy. Plus, it has a fantastic opening line:

Long before we discovered that he had fathered two children by two different women, one in Drimoleague and one in Clonakilty, Father James Monroe stood on the altar of the Church of our Lady, Star of the Sea, in the parish of Goleen, West Cork, and denounced my mother as a whore.

Unfortunately, despite the strong first chapter, I didn’t enjoy it as much as I’d hoped. Emily commented that this would have been called “women’s fiction” if Boyne had been a woman, and that made a lot of sense to me. The Heart’s Invisible Furies felt formulaic and melodramatic, with many scenes designed to “pull on a reader’s heartstrings”. This is not meant to belittle women’s fiction—I actually enjoy women’s fiction, and you all know I read all sorts of excellent ‘trash’ books—but I was led to believe that The Heart’s Invisible Furies was more… well, literary, and it just wasn’t.

The Heart’s Invisible Furies follows Cyril as he takes us through the events of his life, starting from his birth in 1945 to a few days before his death in 2015. Throughout the first half of his life, Cyril struggles with coming to terms with his being gay, especially being gay in a deeply conservative and repressed Ireland in the mid-1900s. Once he has made peace with who his queer identity in the second half of his life, he then struggles with finding a home for himself.

I’ll start with what I liked about this novel. Boyne is skilled at depicting the sociocultural milieu of Ireland during Cyril’s formative years, including how the rigid, moralistic attitudes of the Church towards sexuality. Because of this, people like Cyril’s mother, who bore him out of wedlock, and Cyril himself were subjected to both physical and social forms of punishment, like being beaten up in bars by other patrons, or being refused for a job. Of his boyhood years, Cyril says wryly:

It was 1959, after all. I knew almost nothing of homosexuality, except for the fact that to act on such urges was a criminal act in Ireland that could result in a jail sentence, unless of course you were a priest, in which case it was just a perk of the job. I had a crush [on Julian], but . . . I thought I was just a slow developer; the notion that I could have what was then considered a mental disorder was one that would have horrified me.

Boyne also illustrates this attitude at work years later, when Cyril is in New York in the 1980s during the first wave of the HIV/AIDS pandemic. Since I’m reading this during the time of COVID, I was struck by the similarities between the deaths of the early waves of AIDS patients and the COVID patients now—these patients often died alone, in isolation. However, in the case of the HIV/AIDS patients, Boyne depicted how much more painful this isolation was, because once the patients’ loved ones found out they had the “gay disease”, they completely cut off ties with them. It wasn’t only a medical illness, it was also considered a moral one, and it was the stigma often made it unbearable to its sufferers.

However, aside from its historical accuracy and the injustices committed towards the queer community, I found the rest of the novel sloppy in execution. The first thing that tipped me off was the highly unrealistic dialogue between the children in the novel. This is a conversation between Cyril and Julian, his childhood crush, when they were just seven years old:

“Do you have any dirty magazines?” he asked me then.

“No,” I said, shaking my head.

“I have. I found one in my father’s study. It was full of naked girls. It was an American magazine, of course, because naked girls are still illegal in Ireland.”

“Are they?” I asked, wondering how they bathed if that was the case.

“Yes, the Church doesn’t let girls be naked until they’re married. But the Americans do and they take off their clothes all the time and let their pictures go into magazines and then men go into shops and buy them with copies of History Today or Stamps Monthly so they don’t look like perverts.”

While I’m not a parent and I don’t work with children, I don’t think this is something seven-year-old boys talk about. Plus, the syntax and the vocabulary are too adult-sounding to me. I have a ten-year-old nephew and even he doesn’t sound this sophisticated yet.

Aside from the unrealistic dialogue, I had difficulty suspending disbelief for most of the plot. By the end of the first half, Emily and I were joking that Boyne probably wouldn’t end each part without getting one of his characters jailed, killed, or maimed, and we weren’t so far off the mark. As a reader, this made me feel like Boyne was manipulating me into caring for the characters because of the tragic situations he puts them in.

There were also too many coincidences that happen in the characters’ lives, and they were so heavy-handed that I couldn’t take their ‘chance’ meetings seriously. At one point I wondered if The Heart’s Invisible Furies could have been a sitcom instead, because of how comically absurd the dialogue, the coincidences, and melodramatic tragedies are.

The biggest disappointment for me, though, was the characters. The Heart’s Invisible Furies is often touted as a character-driven novel, but I found most of the characters one-dimensional. For example, the only thing that Julian seems to be is blatantly heterosexual. His adoptive parents repeatedly insist to a seven-year-old Cyril that he’s just adopted, and that he’s not “a real Avery”. What sort of parent does that? Plus, Cyril himself was a passive figure in his life. He just allows things to happen to him, and when he finally does take action for something, he’s reluctant to take responsibility for his mistakes. For a first-person narrator, I also found nothing memorable about his voice—he sounded just like everyone else in the novel.

Overall, I have very mixed feelings about The Heart’s Invisible Furies. On one hand, it was entertaining to read in a soap-opera way, and there were parts that were genuinely moving. But on the other hand, I wasn’t sold on the plot or dialogue, and the arbitrary seven-year gaps made it difficult for me to become fully invested in any of the characters. So… three stars it is. I’m very much the minority here, though, so I’d still recommend this to fans of historical fiction. Maybe if you went into it not expecting something poignant or too literary, you’d like it better than I did.

Have you read this book, or any book by Boyne’s? What do you think of his works? Let me know in the comments!

Find me on Goodreads! | Read from May 11-22, 2020

Book Review: How We Disappeared by Jing-Jing Lee

How We Disappeared v2

HOW WE DISAPPEARED by Jing-Jing Lee
Published by Hanover Square Press on May 7, 2019

My Rating: ★★★★

How We Disappeared tells the story of a young Singaporean girl’s experience as a ‘comfort woman’, a euphemism for women forced into sexual slavery to Japanese soldiers during World War II. I was initially cautious about this book because stories about sexual violence (and especially sexual violence during wartime) can slide into the realm of trauma porn, but thankfully this book doesn’t fall into that trap. While Lee does zoom in on her protagonist’s traumatic experiences, she also situates them in the larger context of healing from the trauma, which makes the novel ultimately hopeful in tone rather than oppressively bleak.

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Book Review: City of Girls by Elizabeth Gilbert

 

City of Girls

Elizabeth Gilbert

City of Girls
City of Girls by Elizabeth Gilbert (Published by Riverhead Books in 2019)

My Rating: ★★★★☆

First of all, isn’t that cover gorgeous? Apparently I’m not beyond judging a book by its cover, because I’d added this to my TBR last year without even glancing at the synopsis! But when I did get to read it, I found the cover very apt for its subject matter – namely, the coming-of-age story of the narrator and costume designer Vivian Morris in the 1940s New York theatre scene.

Don’t let the pink feathers and gilded letters fool you, though. This isn’t just a sparkly romp through the glamorous 1940s; it’s also full of heart, and it deals with the thorny issues of female desire, sexuality, and friendship with a light yet surprisingly nuanced touch. After reading the book, I felt very full and leaky and on the verge of encircling the nearest human being in a gentle (albeit unsolicited) embrace.

This expansive yet tender feeling was also something I’ve felt after reading Gilbert’s last novel, The Signature of All Things, published last 2013 and which I read in 2018. Back then, I was very skeptical of reading anything by Gilbert. Like most people, all I knew about her was Eat, Pray, Love – a book I disliked on principle and one I never planned to read – but to my surprise, all it took was just the first lines of The Signature of All Things to banish that skepticism. Truthfully, I’ve never felt myself slip into the world of a book faster than when I read those opening lines. With an astonishment that’s admittedly unfair to Ms. Gilbert, I thought, Man, this woman knows how to tell a story – this woman can write.

In fact, I would say that out of all the authors I’ve read so far, Gilbert’s writing – her authorial voice, her portrayal of the characters, her subjects, the rhythm and architecture of her sentences – resonates with me on a very personal level. She may not be the most technically skilled writer (e.g., Virginia Woolf) or the keenest social observer (e.g., Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie), but there’s just something about how she writes that feels closest to how I want to notice things, or how I want things to be talked about. I don’t know if that makes any sense – it’s so deeply felt that I have difficulty articulating it – but I don’t know, I just get her writing (or perhaps more appropriately, her writing gets me).

Elizabeth Gilbert
The author Elizabeth Gilbert

I think part of what I enjoy about her writing is the span and scope of it. Both The Signature of All Things and City of Girls spans nearly a century of history, told through the perspective of her female protagonist. In City of Girls in particular, she not only covers the New York 1940s theatre scene; she also touches on World Wars I and II, their aftermath, and the sexual revolution. These are undoubtedly Very Important Events, and as such they could easily have swallowed up the novel’s characters – and we, the readers, understanding the space needed to explore such events, might not have minded. But Gilbert prevents their sombre importance from eclipsing the story by prioritising her protagonist’s lived experience of these historical moments; she doesn’t sacrifice scope for intimacy of detail. Look at how she introduces the encroaching World War II:

There was a war coming, by the way.

[. . .]

Right around the time that I moved to New York—this would be the middle of June 1940—the Germans had marched into Paris. (So much for Dad’s theory.) But there was too much excitement going on in my life for me to follow the story closely. I was far more curious about what was happening in Harlem and the Village than what had happened to the Maginot Line. And by August, when the Luftwaffe started bombing British targets, I was going through my pregnancy and gonorrhea scares, so I didn’t quite register that information, either.

History has a pulse, they say—but mostly I have never been able to hear it, not even when it is drumming right in my goddamn ears.

When I first read this, I was struck by how a serious declaration such as ‘There was a war coming’ was followed by the offhand phrase ‘by the way’ – as if it were an afterthought. I think this sometimes mirrors how we are in our own lives, especially when we’re younger or preoccupied by a personal crisis – monumental events at the forefront of history seem to be relegated to the backgrounds of our lives, and it’s only in retrospect or with more time and space that we can truly think about the ramifications of what had happened.

That said, with a book of this span and scope, it’s bound to be unevenly told. A number of readers have commented on how they seemed to have read two different books – a very interesting first half, and a dull and boring second half. I’d agree that there is a tonal shift at around the midway point, but I’d say it’s less due to Gilbert’s inability to sustain good storytelling than it is due to the developmental transitions of the protagonist. Simply put: Vivian grew up.

In the first half of the novel, Vivian talks about her youth, and the ‘manic’ tone and vivid descriptions of each new experience reflect the wonder, anxiety, and excitement we all feel at the flush of discovering something for the first time (e.g., her first friend crush, falling in love for the first time, having an orgasm for the first time). What propelled the narrative of the first half forward was the series of people that Vivian met in the magical world of theatre. In particular, Vivian fixates on a handful of people that would later become important to her sense of self – the glamorous showgirl Celia Ray as her first friend and her first guide into the world of sexuality; the acclaimed actress Edna Parker Watson as her model for real sophistication; and the cool and arrogant Anthony Roccella as her first love. In retrospect, she admits:

I realize now that I always needed somebody to be infatuated with when I was twenty years old, and it didn’t really matter who, apparently. Anybody with more charisma than me would do the trick. [. . .] I was so unformulated as a human being, so unsteady in myself, that I was constantly grasping for attachment to another person—constantly anchoring myself to someone else’s allure.

In contrast, in the second half, the concentrated force of this youthful adulation is diffused by Vivian’s involvement in war efforts, and by her own burgeoning sense of maturity and certainty. Here, we begin to see her quiet confidence as a dressmaker, and her calm acceptance of her sexual appetites. This is the Vivian who is able to say:

Anyway, at some point in a woman’s life, she just gets tired of being ashamed all the time.

After that, she is free to become whoever she truly is.

As such, if the first half of the novel was a relentless assault of spectacle and novelty, the second half was a mellow savouring of meaningful experiences – e.g., female friendships, pleasurable sex, and intimate conversation. It’s in the second half that we get a more nuanced exploration of the different kinds of love that an individual can experience in her life. So while the two halves seemed disjointed for some readers, it worked well enough for me – I was able to see the whole they tried to represent.

There’s a lot more to commend in this novel – Gilbert’s vivid and masterful characterisations; her ear for natural-sounding dialogue – but this review is becoming too long, so I’ll end with one last point: why I only gave it 4 stars.

As much as I wanted to give this 5 stars, the one thing that didn’t work for me was the way the entire narrative was framed. Vivian is 95 years old when she’s recalling this story, in response to a letter written by someone named Angela, who’d asked, in essence, “What were you to my father?” We are to believe that this 470-page novel is a response to that, when the only part that reasonably answers that question is the last third of the novel. In my opinion, the story would have been more believable and just as interesting without this narrative frame.

All in all, though, it was a very delightful and immersive read, and I’d definitely recommend it to anyone who enjoys historical fiction.

Find me on Goodreads | Read from December 22-30, 2019

Book Review: Pachinko by Min Jin Lee

PachinkoPachinko by Min Jin Lee

My Rating: ★★★☆☆

After thinking about it, I decided to give this 3 stars. I wanted to rate it higher, but in the end I found that the novel failed in one of the main things it set out to do, which was to explore the nuances in questions of race, motherland, and nationhood.

I’ll start with what I liked about it. This novel was an epic family history spanning four generations of immigrant Koreans in Japan, at a time when Koreans were discriminated against. Right off the bat I knew I had to read it, since 1) I adore family sagas (e.g., Middlesex andOne Hundred Years of Solitude), and 2) it’s a novel set in East Asia, populated by East Asian characters. My own family is a family of Asian immigrants in another Asian country, so while the situation is not exactly the same, I felt I would find echoes of our history in this one.

And for the first half of the book, I wasn’t disappointed. I saw my own grandmother in Sunja, and I saw the hard life my grandparents must have lived in Yoseb and Kyunghee. I understood the emphasis on hard work, education, and most importantly, giving back to one’s family. Also, I found Min Jin Lee’s choice of narrative voice and point of view extremely important: She used a limited third person point of view, and relayed all events – whether happy or tragic – in a matter-of-fact tone, and in language closer to an anthropological account than to fiction or poetry. In my view, the utilitarian nature of the language mirrors the practical attitude of most of the characters. Any interior thoughts are narrated in the same manner as external events, and even then, are not explored beyond a few brief lines; this emphasizes the fact that interiority and identity are not given as much importance as survival against a capricious fate. This quiet, outward resilience, as opposed to the kind of resilience crowded by positive affirmation and self-talk prevalent in this generation, is encapsulated beautifully in the first line of the novel: “History has failed us, but no matter.” No matter what happens to them, Sunja’s family always get their bearings and will do whatever it takes to survive.

But things started to fall apart at the halfway point, around the stories of the third generation. Unlike the previous generation, Noa and Mozasu, Sunja’s sons, don’t necessarily do things out of a reactive striving against a harsh fate for the sake of survival; they possess more interiority and agency. But the language of the storytelling remains the same as the one used for the previous generations – it’s still that matter-of-fact narration, with only an executive summary of the character’s thoughts and feelings – so the characters’ actions come off as insufficiently foreshadowed and unnecessarily melodramatic. It gets worse towards the end of the book, since it was populated by the points of view of various minor characters that I didn’t really care about. It’s a case where depth is sacrificed for breadth; as a result, most characters were not fleshed out.

One consequence of this is that issues of race and nationhood are explored in a rather simplistic manner. There seems to be no change in how the characters view their status as foreigners from Sunja’s time to Solomon’s time (Solomon being her grandson, the fourth generation), and I think this is because the characters themselves are woefully one-dimensional. The world is still split between “good Koreans” and “bad Koreans”, or “good Japanese” and “bad Japanese”. Morality is also absolutely defined: pachinko (gambling) parlors are “bad”, but Mozasu, Solomon’s father, is a “good” businessman and Korean because he never cheats, he pays his taxes, he is fair to his employees and his family, and so on. Questions of race, motherland, and nationality, and questions of morality, remain black and white and dichotomous.

I think part of the reason people love this is that this is a novel about bad things happening to good people, and by nature we gravitate to rooting for the good people and the underdogs. And yes, I did like most of the characters in the novel; it’s almost impossible to dislike them. But that doesn’t change the fact that they’re flat characters who rarely change throughout the course of history.

Overall, though, it’s an engrossing novel; I think most people would enjoy it. I just expected more from it, I guess.

Read from August 18 – December 28, 2018 | Goodreads Account