In June of this year, Leo Varadkar made history when he was elected as Ireland’s prime minister. At 38, Varadkar is the youngest person to hold the office. But he also brought down a more significant barrier as the country’s first openly gay prime minister. It comes on the heels of 2015’s referendum that made Ireland the first country to legalize same-sex marriage on a national level through popular vote, and it follows the expansion of LGBT rights in other realms during the past decade. This is all the more astonishing when one remembers that until 1993, homosexuality was illegal, creating a culture of fear and repression for many Irish citizens.
John Boyne, the bestselling author of The Boy in the Striped Pajamas, follows one such citizen in his new novel. Titled The Heart’s Invisible Furies, the book follows Cyril Avery as he struggles to come to terms with his sexuality and his place in Irish society over a lifetime.
Cyril knew he was gay from age seven, when he met and fell in love with Julian, a charming boy who became Cyril’s best friend. But Julian doesn’t return Cyril’s feelings, and out of fear and shame, Cyril is unable to come clean about his lifelong love. Cyril’s tension becomes too much to bear on the morning of his marriage to Julian’s sister, Alice, when he admits everything and flees during the reception. In the years that follow, Cyril spends time in Amsterdam and New York, patching together a family and overcoming an identity crisis caused by his repressive upbringing. When he returns to Ireland years later, he has to make amends to the people he hurt when he was young, afraid, and overwhelmed.
At over 500 pages, Boyne’s novel begins with Cyril’s birth and moves forward at nearly decade-long jumps to cover the protagonist’s entire life. The narrative exclusively focuses on Cyril, meaning that while his interior and exterior struggles are beautifully detailed, the book doesn’t veer far from the perspective of a privileged gay man who can move to more accepting communities when necessary. And due to The Heart’s Invisible Furies’ expansive timeline, Cyril’s personal growth makes him a fascinating—if frustrating—protagonist, capable of both incredibly selfish and remarkably compassionate acts.
Cyril’s life intersects with some of history’s most significant moments. Born shortly after the end of World War II, he comes of age on the cusp of the sexual revolution and terrorist violence in his home city of Dublin. He spends time with AIDS patients in New York in the 1980s, works in a government building when the 9/11 attack takes place and lives to see his country change. But these events, with the exception of the AIDS epidemic, are pushed to the periphery in favor of Cyril’s personal story. It’s a choice that pays off; watching him evolve from a young man cowed by bigotry into an old man who can laugh off ignorance proves moving. Yet his close proximity to historical events feels like a lost contextual opportunity.
To Boyne’s credit, the book isn’t stuffed with characters who flit in and out. Instead, Cyril’s world feels small even as he travels the globe, with the same names popping up until the final, cathartic conclusion. And, at the risk of sounding cliché, Boyne writes scenes that will make a reader laugh and cry—without saccharine sentiment or flippancy. Infused with heart and humor, as well as a keen sense of man’s capacity for cruelty, The Heart’s Invisible Furies pulsates with life’s complexity and progress’ slow march.
Bridey Heing is a freelance writer based in Washington, DC. More of her work can be found at her website.