Irish author John Boyne's latest novel, The Heart's Invisible Furies, is a 600-page roman à clef with a portentous title and a United States cover design that's even more amateurish than its United Kingdom cover was – and yet it's the most inviting and completely spellbinding book this author has ever written, surpassing his bestselling "The Boy in the Striped Pajamas" for spear-tip pathos, surpassing his immensely powerful "The Absolutist" for its historical vividness, and surpassing 2014's "A History of Loneliness" for its X-ray-accurate Irishness.
And "The Heart's Invisible Furies" is also funny: Despite the darkness of its various time periods and subject matters, it's shot through with a drab, cutting humor that could have stepped unchanged out of the pages of Flann O'Brien. The combination can be disorienting, and this is clearly a big part of the author's goal; there are many scenes in this book that are simultaneously hilarious and heartbreaking.
The book tells the story of Cyril Avery, and it starts, "David Copperfield"-style, in his pre-consciousness: He's a baby impatiently waiting to be born as his mother, 16-year-old Catherine Goggin, is struggling with the shame of being unwed and pregnant in 1945 West Cork, Ireland. The local priest makes her confess to her shame in front of the entire congregation and exiles her from the village.
She makes her way to Dublin, where she decides to give up her little boy for adoption by a wealthy couple, Charles and Maude Avery, the first of the novel's solid dozen unforgettable fictional creations, an aloof, eccentric pair who named their little boy Cyril after a favorite spaniel and make sure he knows that his standing in their household is roughly analogous to that of a fondly-kept pet. Charles is a successful businessman prone to alcohol and high-profile scandal, and Maude is a reclusive novelist who churns out a book every year to minimal sales and no acclaim – which suits her just fine, since she has nothing but contempt for her readers and considers popularity to be the height of poor taste. Cyril was not their first attempt at adopting – as Maude tells him, “There was a girl in Wicklow to whom we paid a sizable amount of money but when the baby was born it had a peculiar-shaped head and I simply hadn't the energy.”
It's during his childhood with the Averys that Cyril first meets Julian Woodbead, a charismatic and self-assured boy who's everything Cyril isn't and wishes he were. Much later in the story, when Cyril is on the eve of marrying Julian's sister, he haltingly begins a confession that's been waiting for over two decades: “The truth is I've been in love for as long as I can remember … Since I was a child, in fact. I know it sounds stupid to believe in something as corny as love at first sight, but it's happened to me.”
The startled reaction of Julian, a confirmed libertine when it comes to women, will come as no surprise to readers who are at all familiar with the psychological judo of the Irish stage – indeed, the novel feels more than a little theatrical, right down to the fact that it's broken up into long scenes each separated by a gap of seven years and given heavy-handed titles like “Exile” and “Peace.”
The novel follows Avery throughout the decades, from his birth in 1945 to his approach to old age at 70, and the story encompasses a great deal of history. Through Avery, readers experience the violent, repressive, Church-dominated Ireland of mid-century, the greasy cosmopolitanism of Amsterdam, the tedium and surprising drama of civil service (a scandal involving a blustering Minister of Education allows scope for a particularly comic turn), and New York at the height of the AIDS epidemic, when Cyril and his lover Bastiaan are bullied out of a restaurant in the Flatiron district, with patrons hissing to the waiter, “You need to throw away all their plates and cutlery ... and wear gloves, I advise you.”
“We're none of us normal,” a sympathetic soul tells Cyril at one point, but the key to the emotional punch of a novel like "The Heart's Invisible Furies" is of course that Cyril is normal – he is the caring, thoughtful, grounded baseline against which the book's sprawling cast of eccentrics play to best advantage, and it's through his Everyman fallibility that the book works its magic.
Through all the book's humor and hyperbole, through all of its sometimes laborious contrivances (Cyril runs into his birth mother so many times you'd think the plot were set in a phone booth), the spotlight remains on this one decent, gentle man slowly gaining the freedom – and the confidence – to become a person. It's an understated goal as novels go, but it's an outstandingly memorable achievement even so.