This was one of those books that, as soon as it came out, everyone seemed to be reading and raving about. I saw it positively compared to a number of sweeping, epic and a little bit heartbreaking books (i.e. A Little Life, which I just read and loved). Seeing that, and having read a few other books by Boyne already (I really enjoyed both The Absolutist and The House of Special Purpose), I knew this one was going to have to jump to the top of my TBR.
I started this about a month ago and really don’t know why it’s taken me so long to get through it. There were a few books in there that I had to read faster (for book club purposes) that got in the way, and it is a fairly long novel, but for me neither of those things would usually make this much of a difference. I guess I’ll just blame it on the time of year (all the Holidays) and a very busy few weeks in my personal life. Regardless, I can say for sure that it’s not a reflection on the quality of the book.
For some quick background, this is the story of Cyril Avery. Born to an unmarried woman in post-WW2 Ireland and adopted at birth by a slightly eccentric, upper class couple, this novel follows him throughout his life. From his youth in Dublin to his following international life and travels and back to Dublin for his later life, we see him create, sabotage and redeem both himself and many of his relationships throughout the years. All of this is set against cultural, political and religious backdrops that do nothing to make things easier for him as a gay man.
This is a comprehensive life saga, told in smaller sections with 10 or so year jumps between them (a method of moving things forward that is used flawlessly here). We meet most of the main players, his adoptive parents, his best friend Julien, Julien’s sister Alice, and Ms. Goggin, fairly early in the story. A few other important characters, primarily his chosen family Bastiaan and Ignac, come a little farther in, but by about halfway through we are familiar with everyone who will be important in Cyril’s life. The introduction of characters and the long, slow (in a realistic and complete sense, not as a commentary on pacing) development of their characters, both on their own and in relation to Cyril, is textured and full. They are all precisely flawed and human.
Cyril himself is a wonderfully complex and nuanced character, jointly inviting feelings of sympathy and frustration in reaction to his actions and decisions. To this point, the presence/atmosphere of the historical context and the political and cultural setting(s) of his story is interwoven so smoothly, affecting Cyril’s choices so much, that it truly almost becomes its’ own character. You cannot judge him separately from the reality of his circumstances, for better or worse (and credit to the author for describing these circumstances neutrally, as an observation of how things were, without injecting too much personal opinion or judgement into the narrative – I can only imagine that was a challenge, considering the many judgmental reactions/emotional responses I had as I read). Having to make your own decisions about whether he deserves the benefit of the doubt and balancing his personal blame/failures with sympathy for the situation(s) is what really draws you into and keeps you invested in the story. And the ability to do so, to be able to make those calls for yourself and not be told how to react by the author, is a testament to the reality created by Boyne in this novel.
The psychological exploration of Cyril’s feelings and decisions adds so much to this fascinating read. Since we hear from Cyril himself, his thoughts on and reactions to everything he does, both at the time and looking back, our relationship with him as a reader is developing and changing in the same way that the rest of the characters’ are. And going on that journey of growth, self-discovery and self-acceptance with him is the crowning jewel of this novel. Full of lovely and witty dialogue and the perfect mix of history and fiction, this novel is masterfully written.
With a poignant ending (I got misty-eyed), coincidence and luck that toe the line of believably (only slightly crossing over) and a bildungsroman denouement that encapsulates the adage “better late than never” perfectly, I definitely recommend this touching, personal narrative.
I received this book, in exchange for an honest review, courtesy of Blogging for Books and Hogarth Press.