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!

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