A History of Loneliness by John Boyne

Irish writer, John Boyne.

When you are born into a Judeo-Christian society you are a product of that society whether you subscribe to the belief system or not, and that goes for all societies that have a belief system at their core.

Belief systems have accompanied human existence since the year dot; they predate governments and were in fact human’s first taste of governance. It belies our history to denounce religious belief as irrelevant and purely a product of our human ability to imagine a truth even if that truth doesn’t exist. It would be equally absurd to denounce our artistic nature simply because it is another product of our imagination that also allows us to make up stories.

However, there is a difference, a big difference, between a belief system and the administration of that belief system. It is the synagogue, the temple, the mosque, the church that tells their followers what to wear, what they can eat and when to eat it, how to sing, what the god meant, and what they must do to get to a better place; to be blunt, it is the belief system that sustains its followers but the administration that damages them. And to be blunt again, this book is about how a good priest comes to terms with a bad one.

I’m avoiding using the word evil, which shouldn’t really exist as a noun, it is better used only as an adjective: people do evil things, and at the heart of every evil thing is a need. In some cases that need, and the person’s actions to satisfy that need, are distorted, sometimes outrageously so, but nevertheless a need that needs to be sated. In some cases that need isn’t understood even by the perpetrator of the resulting evil deeds which makes them all the more difficult, some say impossible, to judge, correct, or punish.

A History of Loneliness (2014) is the book before Boyne’s master-work, The Heart’s Invisible Furies (2017) – the book that introduced me to this author – and these two books are the only ones set in his native Ireland.

Obran Yates is an Irish boy with a malleable nature. He enters a seminary in 1972 at the behest of his mother because she tells him he has a calling, and we follow his education with its friendships and frustrations, his family with its joys and tragedies, and his work as a teacher and parish priest with its disappointments and sacrifices. In parallel with this history of priestly life is the shadow of sexual abuse at the hands of priests; a shadow that grows and darkens despite that administration’s attempts to ignore it.

We all know about this blight on our Judeo-Christian society. Names like George Pell and Malka Leifer remind us of it almost nightly between Covid-19 news updates.

The writing is assured, confident, and skillful and Boyne pulls no punches. He has confessed to having a hot anger against the Catholic Church for decades but he has channelled that anger to tell a story about a good priest who like most religious leaders do the right thing and sustain the believers in their care, but Boyne also makes it clear that the old response – don’t let a few bad apples taint the whole barrel – is a very poor one. Why? because the administration of christianity is rigidly hierarchical and fiercely insular in its protection of itself, to the point of betraying then abandoning those in its care. Speaking out against their own is not what priests do. They should and hopefully will.

The belief system says “Suffer little children to come unto me, and forbid them not: for of such is the kingdom of God” and the administration of that belief system has completely reversed and blighted the meaning.

This is a book that needs to be read. It is also a great argument for the power of fiction to tell us the truth.

Here is an interview with John Boyne about A History of Loneliness.

You can purchase the book in various formats here.

A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara

Hanya Yanagihara Pic
American novelist Hanya Yanagihara. A Little Life was short-listed for the 2015 Man-Booker Prize

This is a novel about friendship; no, it’s more than that, it’s about love-ship. It’s a solar system of people, with planets, Willem (an actor), JB (a painter), and Malcolm (an architect), and their hugging friends who hover like moons as they all circle in ever-decreasing orbits around Jude (a lawyer), the sun-like centre; where a career is as important as sex, where sex is fluid and non-defining, where who you think you are can be a million miles away from who others think you are, and where desire is unhinged from the brain and is a simple bodily necessity.

Yes, on one level it is a hymn to this love-ship but it is also a harrowing account of the affects of child sexual abuse and “how far a body will go to protect itself, at all costs. How hard it fights to live. But then the fact is,” she suggests, “our bodies don’t care about us at all.”

Yanagihara puts omnipotence back into the qualities of the third-person narrator: her narrator is fluent in the intricacies of pure math[s] – zero must exist but has it been proven to exist; the legal arguments that define the difference between what is fair and what is right; the architectural pitfalls of urban interior design; the sexual ambivalence of well-heeled twenty-somethings as opposed to the sexual certainty of the under-educated; and the life-threatening aspects and the psychological roller-coaster ride of a physical and emotional retard whose depths of self-loathing are bottomless, but who is, by every account, the most intelligent of the lot of them. This character, Jude St Francis, whose little life this book is about, is the emotional heart of this group of friends living in and around New York City, and we are not spared any of the tragic, horrific, and dehumanising aspects of his existence and upbringing and it is all due to Yanagihara’s skill that his life is so enthralling. She makes it very clear that intelligence can overcome even the most debilitating consequences, while at the same time proving that, in regards to the self, intelligence has very little traction.

Yanagihara’s prose is informal and chatty (conjunctions often begin new ideas, just like a chat with your neighbour), dense (a paragraph can contain the past, the future, and the present – she loves dashes and brackets), and of course her characters are flawed (after-all there are no novelistic perfect characters) but her description of them is pure, true, but non-judgemental; unlike her characters’ descriptions of each other.

And even though it is difficult at any given moment to understand where the narrative is on its own timeline there is a feeling of moving forward; that despite the rich characterisation and back-story anecdotes a narrative is unfolding. She pulls no punches so even as you are enjoying a moment of happiness in Jude’s chaotic, damaged, but professionally charmed life, there is a dread in your guts that it could all come tumbling down disastrously, on the next page. Sometimes you feel like you want to skip a bit, so detailed and horrendous are the descriptions of moments in Jude’s life but the skipping moment is always voyeuristically delayed and finally when the dread is over you can feel that lump in your throat slowly melting away and you can breath evenly again.

Hanya Yanagihara is an American writer and editor of Hawaiian extraction and currently works as the deputy editor of The New York Times Style magazine. Her first novel, The People in the Trees, was considered one of the best in 2013.

I wrote my second novel, A Little Life, in what I still think of as a fever dream: for 18 months, I was unable to properly concentrate on anything else … but if the actual writing of the book was brief, it’s only now that I realise that I had been thinking of this novel for far longer. I began collecting photography when I was 26, 14 years ago; and when I actually began writing, it was these images I returned to, again and again: they provided a sort of tonal sound check, as it were … Now that the book is done, I realize that these images are now so inextricable from the book — and my experience of writing it — that looking at them again is somehow jolting: they’ve become a visual diary of that year and a half, and I find myself unable to look at them without thinking of the life of my novel.

Hanya Yanagihara (http://www.vulture.com/2015/04/how-hanya-yanagihara-wrote-a-little-life.html)

Yanagihara is not interested in marriage; it is not for her, nor for her friends, nor for her characters. A Little Life makes us aware of the meaning of the word, family: how we create them, keep them, succour them, honour them, even when there are no blood-ties, the lack of which seemingly makes this family stronger, truer, safer, more honourable.

This is the first book I can remember reading that made me cry (there are also a lot of laughs, mainly of recognition) well before the half-way mark; it is however, despite the title, a big book. If you find the first fifty pages just a blur of dense information persevere, it is very much worth it.

A great book!