The Heart’s Invisible Furies by John Boyne

A few weeks ago I read The Heart’s Invisible Furies by John Boyne. It touched me deeply. It has been passed around fellow librarians and to a person we have all been affected by this book. It is a novel with themes of identity, family, and country. This transcendental narrative is about a mans experience of being gay across the decades in 21st century Ireland. It is about societal changing views of gay men over the decades. It has sexual scenes that are graphic and sordid but at the same time pragmatic. The protagonist talks about giving a hand job to a young priest in a cinema and how afterwards he had to move because the smell of the ejaculation was making him gag and drawing attention from fellow cinema goers. This was the reality for many gay men in 50s/60s Ireland. my colleagues and I often rail against sex scenes in novels, disliking the descriptive ‘throbbing, pulsating, heaving’ staple language of, say, a romantic novel. John Boyne might be sordid, but he is pragmatic.
He also expresses the position of gay men at this time beautifully through his protagonist Cyril Avery in a truly heartfelt way: Cyril explains how he had never laid in a bed and felt the tenderness of waking up with someone in the morning; how he associated sex with the feel of a tree trunk up against his back, or with the smell of grass in his nostrils. How his sexual encounters were often chance ones in public toilets; how he never encountered a lover twice. However for me I don’t think Cyril was trying to court sympathy. For him at that time, right or wrong, it was what it was.
It was interesting in the novel to see how social attitudes towards gay men have changed through the decades: in the sixties and seventies to be gay was illegal and unacceptable; gay men were a persecuted group. In the eighties we were hit with the HIV/AIDS hysteria and it was ‘you dirty gay people’; born from past prejudices, attitudes, fear, loathing and ignorance. The book describes how in New York hospitals AIDS patients were referred to as a number by staff and volunteers, not by their name, in case families or media got hold of names of patients that wanted to stay anonymous. In the nineties society was becoming more accepting, but homosexuals still seemed to be seen as a separate group on their own; a sort of ‘you lot’ attitude.
This is just one, albeit the main, theme running through this multi- faceted, cleverly woven narrative with it’s utterly believable characters: I overheard a colleague say that he had to google the writer Maude Avery to see if she was a real person. I had already done the same.

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