The Heart’s Invisible Furies by John Boyne
Cyril Avery is not a real Avery or at least that’s what his adoptive parents tell him. And he never will be. But if he isn’t a real Avery, then who is he?
Born out of wedlock to a teenage girl cast out from her rural Irish community and adopted by a well-to-do if eccentric Dublin couple via the intervention of a hunchbacked Redemptorist nun, Cyril is adrift in the world, anchored only tenuously by his heartfelt friendship with the infinitely more glamourous and dangerous Julian Woodbead.
At the mercy of fortune and coincidence, he will spend a lifetime coming to know himself and where he came from – and over his three score years and ten, will struggle to discover an identity, a home, a country and much more.
In this, Boyne’s most transcendent work to date, we are shown the story of Ireland from the 1940s to today through the eyes of one ordinary man. The Heart’s Invisible Furies is a novel to make you laugh and cry while reminding us all of the redemptive power of the human spirit.
Boy, do I have a lot of thoughts on this book. Please bear with me while I try to explain everything. ALSO it’s very long. Apologies, I had a lot to say.
Things I enjoyed
- The writing: this book is incredibly well-written. Boyne is a very talented writer, and that really shows in this book. It’s also really funny in a lot of places.
- The timeline: I really enjoy books that take place over a really long period of time, like this book does. It starts from before Cyril’s birth to his late 70s. I really enjoyed how we got to see Cyril grow as a human being over his whole life.
- The different settings: we all know by now that I love a good setting. I loved all the different settings of this book. They were super interesting and helped show the different struggles Cyril went through.
- The New York part: the section that takes place in New York was maybe my favourite. I thought the setting and the plot really worked and were super interesting. It also managed to include a major part of gay history in a way that wasn’t overpowering.
- The coincidences: a lot of this book and how the characters run into each other is based purely on coincidence, which a lot of readers seem to take issue with. But, I loved it. I loved knowing something the characters didn’t (I’m not always smart when I’m reading books, so this is new for me).
- The relationships between Cyril and his family members: I thought the relationships between Cyril and his adoptive parents, and then later between him and his ‘adopted’ and biological sons, were really interesting. They were super complex and added a lot to the story.
- The commentary on being gay in Ireland: this was one of my favourite aspects of the book. Everything Cyril said, I completely agreed with. I especially loved the part where Julian is like “you could’ve told me, it wouldn’t have changed anything” and Cyril is like “wtf yes it would’ve”, because I think that’s really important. The commentary was definitely one of the strongest parts of this book.
- Maude: I just loved Maude. Everything about her made me laugh, tbh.
Things I didn’t enjoy as much but also didn’t have a major issue with
Cyril: he was so annoying sometimes. He made things harder than they had to be for himself, or more difficult for other people. He’d be an asshole, someone would dislike him or his asshole-ness, and he’d be like “they hate me because I’m gay, I’ll never find love.” Man, they hate you because you’re an asshole. The gay thing is a separate issue. Which was SUPER annoying, because pretty much everything he had to say about being gay in Ireland during that time was so true and I 100% agreed with him. But because he was so annoying about everything else, it was hard to root for him or trust him.
Showing vs. telling: I thought there were two instances where Boyne did too much telling and not enough showing. The first was with Julian and the second was the meeting between Cyril and his biological mom. I get more into them below, but the tl;dr version is I thought Boyne was just like “everyone loved Julian” and “she struggled with meeting me” and never showed us why.
- Julian: I was never really sold on why everyone loved him. Boyne did a lot of telling us that people love Julian, or want him to love them, but never really showed us why. He was an insufferable, sex-obsessed, vulgar asshole for most of the book, so why did everyone love him???? I don’t get it?? Other than the fact that he’s attractive, I guess. There’s one part where Julian basically meets Cyril’s colleagues, says something about having sex, and then Cyril is like “everyone wanted Julian to like them” and I was like why??? someone please explain to me why this boy is so loved??? That being said, he wasn’t one-dimensional. He was a good, well-rounded character with depth. Also, I understand why Cyril would be obsessed with him (you know, Julian’s the attractive friend who was, honestly, Cyril’s gay awakening. Trust me, I get it). I just wasn’t sold on why everyone else loves him, and wish there was more showing about that.
- The meeting: so we know really early on that Cyril and his biological mom meet at some point. It actually happens in the last, like, 5% of the book, which didn’t allow their relationship to develop at all. Again, we’re told that she struggled with it and they had to work at their relationship, but because of how the book was structured, we never saw that struggle. I just wished they had this realization earlier, because I thought their relationship could have been really interesting and I would’ve loved to see her work through her internal struggles.
🚨🚨 UNPOPULAR OPINION ALERT 🚨🚨
(I wrote this part while I was really mad and then edited it about 6 times when I was less mad, so sorry if it’s a little disjointed and I’m sorry about how angry it sounds. I genuinely tried very hard to word it in a less-angry way, but it is what it is)
My biggest issue with this book was how the women were portrayed
Holy shit, how has no one pointed this out yet. Does John Boyne have a vendetta against women? Does he think all women are one-dimensional stereotypes? Does he actually think all women are that unlikeable? Like wow, man, calm down, please.
Every single woman in this book (with the exception of Mrs. Goggins and maybe Alice and Maude) was portrayed as a completely insufferable, one-dimensional caricature. Mary-Margaret, Emily, the women Cyril works with, his friend in New York (the reporter), they were all horrible and completely one-dimensional. Women seem to fall into two categories in John Boyne’s mind (or at least in this book): slut or Christian prude. There is no in between.
Why? What was the point?
My main issue with this is that when the men were portrayed negatively, it was to make a very clear message. All the priests were portrayed as evil people. And the message here was that the institution that is religion is bad, and the people who perpetuate it (namely priests) are bad. That’s the message the author conveys by making all the priests evil. It makes sense in the context of the story, and in the history of gay men in Ireland. Is it a little over done? Sure. But I get what the author was doing and the point he was making.
So what’s the message he’s trying to convey by making all the women insufferable caricatures? That all women are insufferable caricatures?
If you’re going to make a woman insufferable, at least have a reason. I’m all for insufferable characters. I’m all for women being unlikeable. But they still need to be actual characters. “Insufferable for no reason” isn’t a personality trait. Honestly, this could’ve been solved by making the women actual characters not just caricatures.
For example, here’s how it could’ve been fixed for one of the characters, Emily:
- Her backstory: she grew up the youngest in a large family with superstar older siblings; no matter what she did, it wasn’t good enough, and she had to fight her siblings for attention; therefore, she feels like in order to get the attention she wants, she has to isolate the person from which she wants attention
- This is the reason she tries to isolate Ignac and push away Cyril/Bastiaan; she’s bad at asking for attention and gets jealous easily, so she instead tries to be the most important person in Ignac’s life so he gives her all his attention
This would have made her an actual character with an actual backstory and reason for being the way she is. However, NONE of this is in the book. We get no backstory for Emily, and she has no redeeming qualities. Instead, Emily is just portrayed as this selfish, vapid, annoying, bratty, predatory, un-empathetic, evil woman who is trying to get between Cyril and his ‘adopted’ son. She’s just the worst, for no reason.
Additionally, as a bit of an aside, Boyne feels it’s necessary to comment on the physical appearance of every woman. Often, if a woman was beautiful, she was also a good person (and would often fall into the slut category). If she was unattractive, she was extra insufferable because she was unattractive (and she was normally a Christian prude). That’s unnecessary, my man. Attractive =/= good, or vice versa. Also, it just seemed out of place when the main character and narrator is a gay man. Would a gay man really care that much about a woman’s appearance?
It just drove me insane. Honestly, ONE woman in this entire book was a real character. The others were just caricatures, some slightly more developed than others. Even Maude and Alice, who were better than most of the other women, were still just caricatures. They were interesting caricatures (and didn’t fall into the slut/prude dichotomy), but they didn’t really have any depth. But, honestly, an eight-year-old Cyril meets once had more dimension than the women he encounters multiple times. Even the insufferable men have dimension and are interesting characters. Is it really that had to make women real people?
This book was written in the Year of Our Lord 2017. As readers, we should demand better than one-dimensional caricatures of women.
So those are all my thoughts on this book. This was a hard book to rate because, on the one hand, there was so much I loved. New York, the male side characters, the long timeline of the story, Cyril’s relationship with his adoptive parents, the coincidences, the commentary on being gay in Ireland and how that impacts friendships and relationships, they were all brilliant. But I couldn’t get over how horribly one-dimensional the women are.
Overall, I still recommend this book. I also want to emphasize that it was a funny, enjoyable, interesting read. If you ignore the women issue, it’s honestly a near-perfect book, IMO. Even including the things I liked less, this book probably would’ve gotten 4 stars from me had the women been less one-dimensional.
But those are just my opinions! What about you? Have you read this book? What were your thoughts? Do you agree with me at all? Let me know! I’d love to hear your thoughts!
Thanks for reading! xx