The Heart’s Invisible Furies (Penguin Random House 2017) by John Boyne is an absolutely unputdownable novel: tense storytelling, unforgettable characters, moving and poignant themes and a plot that never lets up, despite spanning seven decades.
This tender and emotional book had me crying at some moments and laughing out loud at others; it manages to be both hilarious and heart-breaking. It’s a grand, epic saga of the life of one man, and the others who come in and out of his orbit as the years progress. A devastating and terribly sad novel that is also uplifting and hopeful. A genuine feel-good tale that will reaffirm your belief in the goodness of human nature, even as it strikes back again and again with misfortunes, atrocities and unspeakable acts of hate. A strange dichotomy but Boyne achieves this through his imaginative and beautiful prose.
When the book opens, Catherine Goggin – sixteen and pregnant – boards a bus to Dublin to begin her new life. She entrusts her unborn child to a nun in the belief that he will have a better life than she is able to provide. That child, named Cyril by his adoptive parents, grows up in a very strange household. Almost more a curious acquisition rather than a beloved son, he has relative affluence and wants for nothing, except affection and love, which is in rather short supply by his tax-evading father and his introverted author mother. When he is seven, he meets Julian Woodbead, a child his own age who nevertheless seems infinitely more capable, dangerous, interesting, glamorous, exciting and compelling than Cyril himself. The two become friends, and thus begins Cyril’s life journey, marred by misunderstandings, mistakes, misrepresentations and misanthropes, a moving narrative about his search to find his way in the world, to understand who he is and what he desires most. Life conspires against Cyril at almost every turn, whether through his own questionable judgements or through circumstances not of his own making. Yet still he perseveres in searching for that elusive quality: happiness.
The great wonder of this novel is the sliding door scenarios and the constant rollercoaster of Cyril’s life which revolves around him constantly. Many scenes bring him perilously close to discovering some truth. Many times he almost – but not quite – meets someone who would be very important to him, if only he knew about them. Sometimes he does meet these characters, but doesn’t realise until much later the connection that they share. Sometimes some minor thing is said (or NOT said) or done (or NOT done) that changes the course of his life forever. My heart was in my mouth for the entirety of this book as I waited to see if this would be the chapter (in the book, and in his life) that would reveal something momentous to him. And sometimes, when I at last felt the relief of knowing his life was finally going to plan, something unexpectedly awful would happen, which would destroy any growing sense of stability I had built and once again restore unfamiliarity and disillusion. No character is sacred in this book. Nobody is immune to the author’s vicious decisions. We get attached to a character only to have them come to a sticky end suddenly and without warning. And yet there are others, characters that seem unlikeable or insubstantial or without staying power, who do carry on over the years, popping up now and then in Cyril’s life, grounding him or surprising him with their behaviour.
This is a story of love of all kinds – forbidden love, familial love, the love for the friends that we choose as our family. It’s a story of betrayal and desire, of kindness and cruelty, of bravery and bullying, of determination and yearning and self-doubt. It is a series of coincidences and happenstances. It is sad and moving and yet also very, very funny. I highly recommend this book.