Saturday, 21 February 2015

A History of Loneliness by John Boyne

Rating: 3 stars out of 5

Having read The Boy in the Stripped Pyjamas I've been looking forward to this book for a long time.  I heard about this book through the BBC, and needless to say, I was really excited.  I thought the concept of the book was interesting, relevant and untapped.  The book follows the life of Father Odran Yates, an Irish Priest during the child abuse scandals that have rocked the Catholic Church.  However, having finished the book I am left confused - on it's own, it is an OK novel but as a discussion of the child abuse scandal, it is disappointing.

I will begin with a few general remarks.  The first issue concerns the structure of the book.  Each chapter is set in a specified year and the chapters are not chronological.  This is an interesting idea but I feel it wasn't executed well.  For one, I found it hard to remember what had happened when, and I think the date changes just added confusion than anything positive.  It would be interesting to see if it makes for a better read reading the chapters in chronological order.  I also felt that some chapters were weaker than others.  I felt more interested in the young Odran and his childhood than the older Odran.

My second issue is the writing style.  Firstly, some phrases in the book are cringeworthy.  Having looked at other reviews, I am not alone in feeling this. Secondly, I am not a fan of writing questions in the first few pages that are meant to somehow 'hook' the reader.  For instance, Boyne writes how 'first there was three then there was five then there was three again'.  Personally, this is writing for the blurb only.  I like interesting characters and good writing to do the work; questions strike me as lazy and irritating.  Imagine going on a first date and the other person going "I'm going to be married in five years time, is it you that is going to be my partner?" Or "Something happened to me but I will only tell you on the fifth date?"  I find this extremely irritating.  In the words of Father Ted, 'Down with this sort of thing'.

Shows Father Ted holding a sign saying "Down with this sort of thing" outside a cinema

My main issue is the themes; what message is Boyne trying to make?  For the most part, it is obscure.  Sure, we know the subject matter, loneliness and child abuse but it is unclear what role loneliness is meant to play and what Boyne covers over the child abuse could be equally be read in the newspaper.  

Let's look at the theme of loneliness first.  Boyne provides us with a series of observations that, collectively, are confusing such as:
I was sure that I wanted sex with a girl, any girl, but given the opportunity it had felt somehow alien to my nature. (Ch 5)
I simply wanted to be left alone. To think. To read. (Ch 5)
Celibacy did not feel like such a terrible burden (Ch 9) 
Had I spent as much time with her as I should have done? (Ch 12) 
It is unclear what the reader, should take from this.  It is not clear how Odran is lonely.  Is Odran missing a sexual relationship?  Is he missing his family, friends, a secular life?  What confuses matters further, is that Odran himself doesn't really consider himself lonely, just inexperienced in life - it is the other characters that really view Odran as 'lonely'.

Now for the second subject matter of child abuse within the Catholic Church.  Boyne touches on several different dimensions of this: the effect on the reputation and treatment of priests in public, how the abuse was dealt with by the Church,  what it is like to know the abusers and the effects on the victims.  I think Boyne has tried to cover too much, and in doing so, hasn't covered enough in depth to make it a powerful novel.  Yes, the book deals with the subject in a sensitive matter, but it is also a superficial treatment.  Yes, priests were once seen as rock stars and now they are spat at, verbally abused and untrusted, but nothing deeper is made.  No real questions are asked or answered and the same story could have been told without the main character being a Father.  (I think Colm Tóibín, or even Yate's Revolutionary Road, would make an interesting comparison.)

What is interesting is that the only one who asks the questions that need to be asked, i.e. the complicity and whether people really didn't know what was happening, is the paedophile.  Having witnessed the child abuse scandal through the media, spotting the paedophile was not difficult but, I have to ask myself, before the media made me aware, would I have known?  Could I have thought that about someone?  These are difficult questions to answer and Boyne finishes the novel just as he starts to ask them.  

If I am honest, what is hindering the development of the themes is the main character.  Odran himself is a very passive character; life just happens to him, he rarely questions the behaviour of himself and those around him.  For an introverted character, he doesn't do a lot of self-examination.  The only time I felt that Odran made a serious judgment was his criticism of members of the Catholic Church being sexist and women haters.  Odran condemns that view sex and women should be seen as 'dirty' and to be oppressed.  This condemnation really leaves me confused as to what the message is because Odran doesn't make any obvious condemnations of the people involved in child abuse.  What little there is on the theme is in the last few chapters and I feel it is inadequate.  Odran remains mostly silent on the issue of child abuse. 

On Amazon, the book is described as:
The life of a good priest in Ireland over the past 50 years provokes one of John Boyne's most powerful novels yet
I really disagree with this description.  One - Father Yates is not good at his role as a priest, he just avoids the needs of his flock and is more concerned with the library than helping others in distress.  I feel little sympathy for the older Odran, but quite a bit for the young Odran.  Two -  it isn't a powerful novel; it requires serious editing.  

Overall, this novel has left me confused.  Does the 'history of loneliness' refer to the child abuse victims, who were deliberately ignored?  Odran does not address his loneliness, nor his role in the child abuse other than to beg for his forgiveness, without really asking what he is asking forgiveness for and why he feels the need for forgiveness.  Either way, A History of Silence would be a more fitting title for this confused novel.

Book Facts
Publication Date: 2014
Pages: 386
My Edition: Kindle Edition (Transworld Digitial) 
Shows a painted beach scene, with a man holding a boy's hand near the sea shore.

Upcoming reviews: To The Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf. 

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