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The Heart's Invisible Furies: Book Review

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580 pages didn't seem nearly long enough to explore the depth of the blatant bigotry and homophobia of Ireland. I closed the book last night, tears streaming down my face wondering about so many of the characters. What will happen to them? Did he really change? If people can change, why hasn't society? The Heart's Invisible Furies by John Boyne allowed me to explore the dark past of a country that I have always fantasized and examine my own experiences in turn.


I heard Liberty from All The Books podcast rave about this book about a month ago, so when I found it for $15 in my local used bookstore, I knew I had to grab it. She sounded so passionate about her review, and I'm drawn to anything that takes place in Ireland. If I go back far enough down the ancestorial tree, you could say I was Irish (or a very far removed descendant). 

The Heart's Invisible Furies is an eclectic tale of Cyril Avery, who was born out of wedlock to a teenaged girl from the Irish countryside in the 1940's and was adopted into an unconventional family who made it quite clear that he was not a real Avery. Told over the course of 70 years, it depicts the struggles and prejudices Cyril faced as he tried to hide his homosexuality in a time where it was not only considered morally repulsive, but also a crime to be gay. As it weaves together the various players in his life and how their involvement shaped him, the story is one about identity, self-worth and change. 

This book. This book had me laughing out loud at times, and grabbing for the nearest tissue at others. While I knew that the Catholic Church played a very prominent role in Ireland, I don't think I had really considered the extent to which it controlled society until reading this book. 


The Role of Women 

Not only did the church dictate how homosexuals were treated, but also the role of women in society. Women were forced to stay home and work, and it was noted that legally, women were forced into retirement upon marriage. Can we talk about this for a minute? Retirement. Marriage. The fact that it was legally punishable to continue working after becoming wed, which was often quite young, would completely dictate a woman's self-worth. She would be entirely reliant on her spouse to support her, both financially and emotionally as she would be cut off from the experience and comradery that a workplace has to offer. The law was so against women that it was mentioned a husband was let off after murdering his wife because the jury believed she was unfaithful and that warranted his outrageous behaviour. 

     "He doesn't like women who read either. He told me that reading gives women ideas."

There were two very strongwilled characters in this book who I adored: Maude Avery and Catherine Goggin. Both were feminists before their time and refused to stand idly by while they allowed a man to support them, either emotionally or financially. In the cause of Maude, who was a novelist, the characters in her books were depicted as feisty, independent women. When questioned why she only wrote female protagonists, she responded that it was because men wouldn't and someone needed to. Despite her marriage to Charles, Maude continued to bury herself in her novels, and while she actively hated the idea of fame, she believed her messages were important and needed to be told. 

Similarly, after being publically shamed and expelled from the Church, Catherine did what she needed to survive--she lied, saying she was an expectant widow to secure a job to provide for herself. Had it not been for the kindness of the manageress at the tea room, Catherine would have needed to either find someone to marry or start a new life for herself once the child was born. The reoccurrence of the character throughout the book strengthened her position as a strong, independent women, in the way she treated the TD's and politicians and in her personal life. 

The Repugnant Homosexuals 

The main theme of this novel is the hatred of homosexuals in Ireland. They were referred to as "dirty queers", and their actions "disgusting" and "immoral". Men were terrified of being found out, in fear of losing their jobs, families and even their lives. But they also lived in fear of themselves--of who they had to become, however deceitful and mendacious their actions were, and hurting those they were closest too. 

           "But the more I examined the architecture of my life," Cyril said, "the more I realize how     
            fraudulent were its foundations. The belief that I would spend the rest of my time on earth
            lying to people weighed heavily on me and at such times I gave serious consideration to 
            taking my own life." 

Homosexuality was also considered an illness, one that could be cured with some potentially unethical practices. In one scene, it was explained how a doctor would yell out names of popular male figures while the patient listened with his pants down, and upon arousal, the doctor would stab his penis with a syringe to condition the patient to feel pain when he thought of men. They were also considered mentally disordered and deprived of rights (in many cases, the right to live as juries of religious, white men would decide that it was in their best interest that someone had murdered them as it put them out of their misery). 

The (lack of) Evolution of Society 

While the book explores the aforementioned problems over the course of 70 years, it was sad to see how little actually changed in not only Ireland but around the world. During Cyril's time in Amsterdam, there was wide acceptance of gays in the community, and they could walk down the streets, hand in hand, without so much as a comment or disgruntled stare. But the rent boys brought light to the fact many were still being exploited at a young age and were too ashamed to seek help. 

As you begin to think that things are finally looking up for Cyril, he inserts himself in the AIDS epidemic in the late 80's, finding himself living in New York City at the time. People still believed that only gay's could contract the disease, and spewed hatred towards the group wherever they were--having dinners with friends, in the press, and in central park, the scene of a particularly tragic but probably all too real scene in the novel. Gays were considered to be inferior and grotesque, spreading life-threatening diseases from their immoral ways. 

Another common problem in the book was the idea of victim-blaming. Years after Cyril left Ireland, when he attempted to explain his actions to friends and family after his abrupt departure, there were comments along the vain of "why weren't you just honest with me?" People seemed to think that because they lived in a more "enlightened" time now, that his actions during a different time were unwarranted. Yet throughout the book, there is mention of gays being murdered, stripped of all dignity and status for being "out". It wasn't an easy life, hiding your true identity in fear of persecution when gays were handed prison sentences for holding their partner's hand in public! That being said, Cyril did have very difficult choices to make, and the pressure and stress he felt may not have allowed him to make a level-headed decision on such matters. The book really questions whether there is ever the right time to confide in someone, or whether you need an implicit level of trust in those you care about. 

Concluding Thoughts 

The book explored so much and questioned what we as a society want for our people; how we can learn from history to ensure it doesn't repeat itself; how bigoted, old-fashioned beliefs can stifle progress; and so many more concepts that do not just apply to homosexuality, but to women's rights and to the oppression of minority groups. It addresses people's resilience in the face of adversity and the undying strength of humanity. I would 100 per cent recommend this book, and I cannot wait to pick up some others by John Boyne. 

I will leave you with this quote: 

            "I have known bigotry, I've known shame and I've known love. And somehow, I always 
             survive."

xoxo K