Book Review: A History of Loneliness

Blog page

Okay, so I won a copy of A History of Loneliness from Transworld Publishers, a UK publisher, in the middle of last year. Therefore, it is now all clicking for me as to why this book flew under the radar for 2014! It wasn’t released in Canada or the US until today! Random House Canada has announced its publication for today and it is in stores now (hurry, run and grab yourself a copy!).  I have to say, A History of Loneliness was a fantastic and wonderful read to close out my 2014 reading and was the highlight of a year in reading that was too often mired in mediocrity. A History of Loneliness was an exceptionally grand read, and I am so pleased to have won the advanced reading copy from Transworld Publishers! I sincerely hope this reaches the hands of many in this new year! I’m certain this is one that will not be flying under the radar at all, unlike my initial thoughts that it had in 2014.

After reading (actually it was in audio) The Absolutist , I became a great John Boyne fan, and The History of Loneliness has only solidified my love for his writing. This is a grand, epic and all-consuming read and was one I could not put down, and one I did not want to end. Often, I was reminded of Linden MacIntyre’s The Bishop’s Man, which is a novel firmly planted in my list of top reads. Like MacIntyre’s Father Duncan MacAskill, we’re taken on a personal journey of what it means to live the life as one of the “good priests”. With Odran, we’re taken on this fantastic journey through his many years and decades in the priesthood, going back and forth between 2001, 1964, 2011, 1990, 2007, 1978, 1994, ending in 2013. We’re taken on his personal and emotional journey, given the reasons for joining the priesthood (initially his mother kind of forced his hand, but later he will say it was his true calling), his fit in and his love for the seminary but also of the many challenges that faced those that did not fit in, or accept their calling. While in the seminary, Odran rooms with Tom, a boy so ill-suited to the seminary, but one that Odran feels is his best, and really, his only friend. Tom’s calling is so unfortunately not one meant for the priesthood and the pain he inflicts on many comes to a desperately heartbreaking one that includes Odran’s family. A History of Loneliness is Odran’s tales of his current day struggles and also how he struggles with defining his own complacency or is it his really due to his true innocence? in the growing controversies of those other priests that inflicted such pain and suffering on so many, and includes his best friend Tom.

 22318411  22237150  19381636

Propelled into the priesthood by a family tragedy, Odran Yates is full of hope and ambition. When he arrives at Clonliffe Seminary in the 1970s, it is a time in Ireland when priests are highly respected, and Odran believes that he is pledging his life to “the good.”

Forty years later, Odran’s devotion is caught in revelations that shatter the Irish people’s faith in the Catholic Church. He sees his friends stand trial, colleagues jailed, the lives of young parishioners destroyed, and grows nervous of venturing out in public for fear of disapproving stares and insults. At one point, he is even arrested when he takes the hand of a young boy and leads him out of a department store looking for the boy’s mother.

But when a family event opens wounds from his past, he is forced to confront the demons that have raged within the church, and to recognize his own complicity in their propagation, within both the institution and his own family.

A novel as intimate as it is universal, A History of Loneliness is about the stories we tell ourselves to make peace with our lives. It confirms Boyne as one of the most searching storytellers of his generation.

The comment above about Boyne being one of the most searching storytellers of his generation is very apt. In sharing Odran Yates’ story with us, we are rather convincingly enlightened by this well-balanced yet (achingly) heartbreaking tale, not only to the pain and suffering caused by those “bad priests”, but to the struggle of those priests that are not to be included in that grouping, the ones that caused no harm and only served in what they felt was their true calling. Odran Yates considers himself among those that only wished to serve and suffered because of those that wronged them. Boyne very eloquently and passionately writes from this point of view, and again like MacIntyre shows the pain those few caused not only for the children, but for their brothers in Christ and how this deeply affects and scars their own lives:

“I didn’t often venture into the city centre any more. To be among crowds while wearing my collar could be a demoralizing experience. I would inevitably be on the receiving end of the sneering stares of self-important students or puffed-up businessmen. Mothers would pull their children closer to them and occasionally a stranger would approach me with some provocative or insulting remark.” (p. 168)

(Writing in 2011) “I sat down and before I knew what was happening I found myself in tears. Not for myself, I don’t think, nor for the horror of the previous twenty-four hours. But for how things had changed. There was a time when a priest was trusted, when you would bring a lost boy to the curate’s house, not to the Garda station. Now you couldn’t talk to a child without getting strange looks. You couldn’t run an altar-boy meeting without a parent present to make sure you didn’t start to fiddle with the little lads. And you couldn’t help a child who was upset and lost without everyone assuming tht you were trying to abduct him and spitting the word paedophile in your face.

You bastards, I thought to myself, thinking of those men who has ruined this life for me. The rosary beads in my hands snapped, the beads scattering everywhere, some under my chair, some beneath my desk, others rolling slowly across the floor.” (p. 197)

(Writing then in 2008, during the court case for Odran’s best friend/priest Tom) “I was not yet ready to make my way through the reporters and photographers who were still gathered outside on Inn’s Quay, but, mercifully, were not allowed through the open doors…. What kind of life was this, I wondered. To what sort of an organization had I dedicated my life? And even as I searched for blame, I knew that a darkness was stirring inside me concerning my own complicity, for I had seen things and suspected things and I had turned away and done nothing.” (p. 318)

A strong, powerful and very emotional story, and I have no idea if I’ve truly captured it above. All I can say is that I strongly, strongly encourage you to pick up a copy of A History of Loneliness. It has left an indelible mark on my soul. I am certain you will completely lose yourself, turn yourself over to this achingly heartbreaking and oh so eloquently written tale. In his Acknowledgements, Boyne leaves the reader with this incredibly powerful and emotional comment:

“It’s impossible to estimate the number of children who suffered in Ireland at the hands of the Catholic Church, nor is it easy to guess the number of dedicated and honest priests who have seen their lives and vocations tarnished by the actions of their colleagues. This novel is dedicated to all these victims; may they have happier times ahead.”

Father Odran Yates is a character that has not left me for some time. I still ache for him and for this story. This will be a novel I reach for to re-read. This was an incredible journey and in the end we are left with contemplating Odran’s actions – were they complicit or did he just really not know? There are also, so very many dog-eared pages and underlined parts in this book. Many.  5 stars for this splendid read. Do you have your copy yet?

Boyne has been named the Chair for the 2015 Scotiabank Giller Prize jury and I couldn’t have been more thrilled at the announcement! And, of course, I am highly anticipating and so very eager for another grand novel from him, hopefully in the very near future!

Literary Hoarders Penny rev