My experience of John Boyne has been limited to his novels for younger readers and a ghost story. I wasn’t sure what I’d make of this, but I have to say thank you NetGalley for providing me with an ARc of a bittersweet, bleakly comic book that had moments of hope and despair intermingled seamlessly.
The book opens with sixteen year old Catherine Groggin being labelled a whore by her parish priest and cast out of her village because she is pregnant. Nobody steps forward to support her, and nobody helps her. This could have been a thoroughly depressing tale, but Boyne brings a bleak comedy to events by telling the story through the eyes of Cyril Avery (the boy Catherine was carrying).
We learn from Cyril that he was adopted by Charles and Maude, a wealthy couple desperate for a child. A successful banker and renowned novelist, in their home Cyril has a rather unconventional childhood.
Following Cyril as a child we see him go to school, develop an intense crush on a childhood friend and watch as he grows up gay in Ireland.
There was so much to despair over in this book: thypocrisy of the church; the bigoted attitudes of many of the characters; the needless violence and the overwhelming injustice at people not being able to live as themselves out of fear for what others might say or do. Yet, throughout, there were beautifully tender moments of hope for the characters. The dark humour showed by Cyril won me over totally.
Boyne has set himself an adventurous task here. He is exploring attitudes to homosexuality over a substantial period of time, and there’s a lot of characters interweaved throughout. At times I felt frustrated by the close proximity of the key characters to each other without them being aware of the significance, but there was a heartwarming sense of circularity to the novel that felt fitting.