A History of Loneliness by John Boyne – book review

by Edith Cody-Rice 

A History of Loneliness 001I chose this book on the basis of the author’s reputation. Although I had not read others of John Boyne’s books, he has an excellent reputation as a writer and I was curious. Did I really need to read another book about a priest in the era of priest misconduct, I asked myself, but I ploughed on,nonetheless and I am very glad I did. This is a very good read and a very Irish book.

The central persona and narrator in the novel is an aging Irish priest, Father Odran Yates, and the book chapters flash backward and forward in his career. He enters the priesthood in Ireland at a time when priests  were pillars of the community, much respected, and lives to see them deplored and deprecated as the mistreatment of children comes to light. There is much anger in Ireland now at the role of the priest, as there is in America but in the largely Roman Catholic society of Eire, the priest and his disgrace has a much greater impact.

The story is told entirely from the point of view of the priest, who, in the story, is not himself an abuser and who is largely happy in the priesthood. For the most part he is well suited to the role, but because of an incident when he was a seminarian in Rome, he feels that he has never risen in the ranks of the Church. In fact, it is obvious that, in spite of his promising start, he really has not risen as he ends his career largely where he started it, but as he reveals, he is not really ambitious either. He simply wants to be a good priest. And therein lies a central question. What is a good priest?

We see early on that he tends to avoid problems that might require action when he ignores the pleas of his teenage nephew who is beginning to realize that his  mother, the priest’s sister, is experiencing early onset dementia, apparently brought on by the death of her husband. He has many opportunities to guess, in his own profession, that something is wrong, but he ignores the signs. Is that a good priest? He lives much of his career cloistered in an exclusive boys’ school taking meticulous care of the library, thus he is divorced from the problems of pastoral life and when he does enter a parish as a curate, he feels he is a better man for it but he longs for his old home at the school where, in a way, he could at once escape and follow his metier of teacher and librarian.

The story is well told and imagined and can one hear the Irish lilt!! The dialogue, even the internal dialogue of Father Yates is rendered with all the idiosyncrasies of English as spoken by the Irish. It is not so much the climax of the book as Father Yates’ progress through life and his faith that gives this book its interest. I had trouble putting it down.