book review: The Heart’s Invisible Furies by John Boyne

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THE HEART’S INVISIBLE FURIES by John Boyne
★★★★★
Hogarth Press, August 2017

This book wasn’t perfect, but then again, the books I rate 5 stars rarely are. But I loved it. I loved it, I loved it, I loved it. I can’t remember the last time I read something that managed to be both wickedly funny and devastating, often at the exact same time.

The Heart’s Invisible Furies is a sweeping epic about the life of a gay man growing up in twentieth century Ireland. The story begins with Cyril’s mother, Catherine Goggin, being denounced by her village church for becoming pregnant at 16 and forced to relocate to Dublin. Deciding she can’t raise the child alone, Catherine gives Cyril up for adoption to a very odd couple who constantly remind him (in a surprisingly humorous way) that he’s “not a real Avery.” The closest companion that Cyril has is his friend Julian, whom he loves and idolizes in a way that he’s forced to downplay as the two grow up together.

This is an ambitious novel which spans about seventy years, addressing themes of sexuality, religion, the hypocrisy of the Irish Catholic church, as well as how attitudes change over time. As a protagonist, Cyril is incredibly flawed – he makes arguably unforgivable mistakes, but never out of malice; always out of a desire to find his place in a society that refuses to accept him. Despite the absurd humor, at its core this is a very sad story that actually moved me to tears more than once.

Much like The Glorious Heresies, another fantastic contemporary Irish novel that I’d highly recommend, The Heart’s Invisible Furies subtly makes use of fate as a prominent theme. Characters show up in each other’s lives with a regularity that stretches coincidence, so fair warning, you’re going to need to suspend your disbelief early on. But this is ultimately a story about how Cyril and Catherine come to find one another – you learn in the first few pages that they eventually reconnect, so it’s always a question of when and how – and though neither is actively searching for the other, they weave in and out of each other’s lives in unexpected ways, never knowing the other’s identity. It’s such a moving saga of these two flawed but strong individuals living with their regrets and the mistakes they’ve made.

I’ve seen some reviews that criticize this book’s length, and it’s a fair point. I thought the pace was fantastic until the last hundred pages or so, which I thought could have been condensed. But for the most part, I absolutely flew through this – I couldn’t put it down and I was sad when it was over. This was my first John Boyne novel, but it will certainly not be my last.

I chose this book as my August Book of the Month selection.  If you’re interested in checking out this great subscription service, use my referral link!

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22 thoughts on “book review: The Heart’s Invisible Furies by John Boyne

    • Thank you! I think the key with this one is to figure out whether or not Boyne’s sense of humor is up your alley, as that’s such a huge part of the book. e.g., there’s this one part where he describes his adoptive mother doing a reading for one of her novels, where after she finished reading the first chapter she was received with applause, but she glared at everyone to be quiet and she just kept reading as she thought they wanted her to read all 400 pages. And she didn’t even want her books to become popular anyway, as she considered popularity to be vulgar, and when she was asked why she published her novels at all she said something like, “well, what else am I supposed to do with them?”

      That’s pretty much the kind of humor you get for nearly 600 pages. Not that it isn’t also poignant and sad at different times, but whether you think that example is funny or the dumbest thing you’ve ever heard should be a pretty good indication of how you’ll fare with this book.

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      • She’s got some sass, I see. Thank you for that more thorough breakdown. This is outside my typical genre, which is why I was so on the fence in the first place, but I’m seeing so many positive reviews and comments about it that I really want to dive in and see if it’s for me. Did you find it very emotional? Make you think about things in a different light? etc?

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      • That she does! For as horrible of an adoptive mother she was, she was an absolutely hilarious character.

        What kind of genres do you normally read? This book was practically tailor made for me (Irish, bildungsroman, gay protagonist, family saga, epic length – all things I love!) but I’ve seen positive reviews from all kinds of readers. The only negative reviews I’ve seen are from readers who thought it was too long (point taken, but it’s still a pretty quick read all things considered) or who didn’t jive with the sense of humor.

        I found it incredibly emotional. It takes a hell of a lot to make me cry, so the fact that I cried more than once while reading this is a pretty big #testimonial. I thought Boyne’s meditations on the Irish Catholic church were rather fascinating, and I did learn a lot about Irish twentieth century history. It’s more character driven than it is historical, but he sets the backdrop incredibly well.

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      • My reading habits used to be all over the place and not very genre specific because they were often just whatever someone handed to me. This past year or so, I’ve definitely been more involved in the YA realm, but I’m always looking for a poignant book that allows me to step away for a moment or so. I’ll keep you posted if I read this soon.

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      • “All over the place” is literally the best way to describe my reading habits, though I definitely understand the appeal of sticking mainly to one genre. Anyway, if you decide to read it, I hope you enjoy!

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  1. I’m learning to equate the word ‘gritty’ with ‘how can I make this sex scene as awkward as possible,’ and after reading such delightful passages as Lauren Groff comparing a guy’s stomach to the tautness of creme brûlée and Jardine Libaire’s protagonist literally thinking that he’s a monkey in the middle of a threesome, I’m done. I’m out. I have suffered all I can suffer.

    ajdlkjafoj this entire paragraph is gold! And I totally agree.

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  2. This is a super amazing review and I’m really intrigued. I think you had me at the 20th century Ireland setting. Also- “the closest companion that Cyril has is his friend Julian, whom he loves and idolizes in a way that he’s forced to downplay as the two grow up together.” These kinds of stories always get me and it’s like I can already feel the pain.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Ahhh you definitely need to read it!!! 20th century Ireland is initially what grabbed me as well, and I loved how much attention Boyne paid to the historical backdrop. Oh my god same, that is one trope that never fails to destroy me.

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  3. This is coming up soonish on my TBR so I’m glad to hear you loved it so much! I haven’t read any of his other stuff either, so I’m not sure what to expect, but the idea of wickedly funny but with a heart sounds very appealing… 😀

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    • Oooh, I’m glad you’re reading it soon, I can’t wait to see what you think of it!

      I thought I was the only person in the world who hasn’t read The Boy in the Striped Pajamas, haha, high five! It had never been on my TBR because I don’t ever read middle grade fiction, but now I’m tempted to try it.

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    • Ooooh I can’t wait to see what you think of it! I love Irish contemporary so much, I’m probably a bad Irish lit fan because I haven’t read a lot of the classics and have no desire to ever read Joyce, but there are so many great Irish contemporary writers I love.

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