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.

Mutiny on the Bounty by John Boyne

Irish writer, John Boyne.

It’s a rollicking ride of the story that we think we all know, and we do know the basic facts: the Bounty was captained by William Bligh to sail to Otaheite (Tahiti) in 1789; it’s mission was to collect seedlings of breadfruit to then transport to the West Indies as a cheap food source for slaves; his first mate, Fletcher Christian, led a mutiny a few days after leaving Tahiti; William Bligh and a few loyal followers were set adrift in a small launch; they sailed, rowed, and finally made it to West Timor and the Dutch settlement of Kampung; the survivors, including Bligh, were repatriated to England. Later Bligh became Governor of the colony of New South Wales.

But Boyne’ story is told from the point of view of the cabin boy, John Jacob Turnstile, christened unkindly by the crew as ‘Turnip’. He’s fourteen years old, smart, opinionated, and roughly educated; the offer to sail saved him from his life of poverty and as a member of a group of boys in Portsmouth lorded over by the vile Mr Lewis who not only trained them in the art of pickpocketing but also made them available to entertain the particular proclivities of Portsmouth’s wealthier gentlemen.

It’s a fascinating and adventurous account of life on board a small sailing vessel in the sixteenth century and Boyne sticks to the story as history; but what is different is the characters of the main players: Mr Bligh, captain in name only, not in rank, (fact) is a strict commander but kind to Turnip and in return the boy is loyal to him; Christian, a well educated son of a wealthy family fallen on hard times, is a charismatic and handsome specimen who is the only man on board who owns a mirror, uses pomade in his hair, and is noted for his body odour because of his lack of it.

While on Otaheite, Bligh allows the men freedom to reside on the island and fraternize with the natives; many of the men, including Turnip, form relationships with the local women whose culture isn’t burdened with social and sexul mores as is the Englishmen’s.

When two sailors foolishly desert their posts and hide in a remote part of the island with their women, Bligh is outraged and regrets his original leniency and commands all the men to ‘live’ back on board the Bounty. This, in Boyne’s version, is the deed that sows the seed of the eventual rebellion. The deserters are finally caught and Bligh, lenient again, has them flogged, rather than hanged. This is only the second flogging on the entire voyage, something of a record and one that Bligh is extremely proud of, but now, again, regrets his leniency and tries to impose his authority once again.

While on their way west towards the Caribbean the men were so depressed and angry at their having to leave the climate, freedom, lifestyle, and their newfound relationships that their mutinous mumblings are stoked by Christian into mutinous deeds.

Turnip remains loyal to Bligh and joins the other 18 men on the tiny launch Christian confines them to, as they watch Christian’s men sail away tossing all the one thousand breadfruit plants into the sea as they go.

The 42 day journey in an open boat to Timor is harrowing; some men don’t survive and some men succumb to the ordeal even after reaching Timor, so malnourished and mentally exhausted were they that medical assistance couldn’t save them. Turnip survives and we learn of his return to Portsmouth and … sorry, no spoilers here.

It’s an entertaining, accomplished, and a satisfying read. Boyne’s choice of vocabulary and syntax is appropriate to time, character, and social position. The story has been filmed five times and written about more, each with Bligh as the villian; this story is different.

You can buy the Kindle version, along with other formats, here.

A Traveller at the Gates of Wisdom by John Boyne

Irish writer, John Boyne.

John Boyne has in his novelistic career stretched a life over two and a half centuries (A Thief of Time, 2000); channelled Buffalo Bill (The Congress of Rough Riders, 2001); Captain William Bligh (Mutiny of the Bounty, 2008); ghosts in 1860’s Norfolk, (This House is Haunted, 2013); Gore Vidal (A Ladder to the Sky, 2018); set the action in the Winter Palace of the Tsars (The House of Special Purpose, 2009); World War 1, (The Absolutist, 2011, Stay Where You are then Leave, 2013); 1930’s London (Next of Kin, 2006); Nazi Germany (The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas, 2006); Ireland and the Church (The History of Loneliness, 2014, The Heart’s Invisible Furies, 2017); so a novel that stretches a life over two millennia and includes historical people and events we recognise is really just another slice from the vast John Boyne universe: testament to his wide interests, audacity, and skill. He is certainly ambitious. 

Here in A Traveller at the Gates of Wisdom the unnamed narrator born in AD 1 has the novelistic trait of NOT aging with the years so that in AD 214, as he continues his own story, he is 10 years old.  Although events in the narrator’s life remain in his history no matter where the story takes him, and the story take him all the way to 2016 and on to 2080.  

However, there is a feeling of A Traveller … being squeezed into the gambit that Boyne has prescribed himself. A person throughout their lifetime doesn’t exist alone. Primarily it’s to do with the family: these people travel along with you. Boyne overcomes this by deeming that if the  protagonist linearly exists across centuries then his parents and siblings must also; names, except for their initial capital letter, change to suit the location; hence his brother Junius – in Palestine AD 1, becomes Jouni – Turkey AD 41, Juliu – Romania AD 105, and so on. Events also stay in our memory and can have repercussions in later life, these too are noted but the names of places and the principle players change similarly. This is acceptable and can be easily assimilated into the readers’ understanding of what the writer has defined; but all this has a cumulative effect: a distancing from the protagonist. And when magic, or is it divine intervention? intercedes to save our hero’s life – Greece AD 1223, an even broader distance is put between reader and protagonist; a protagonist that up to this point had been a centre of rationality, atheism and, to some degree, morality.

This did not change my enjoyment of the book, it’s still a fascinating, and unique read, but that enjoyment is skewed from my other experiences of Boyne’s work. There is not the same engagement I felt with the characters of his other work. This is a different book. So what is Boyne’s point here? 

Someday, we may build towers taller than the eye can see, fly through the sky on wings, even live among the stars. But know this much; the things that surround us may change, but our emotions will always remain the same.


Humans will always be human.


The cause and spread of the Black Death (The Plague) was not known until the 19th Century, certainly not in the 14th as described in the chapter Norway AD 1349. But, the reader can object to these aberrations, like little jumps – Hey! Hang on a minute! – or accept that the universe of the book need not be exactly the universe of the reader. However, the more the reader has to adjust their universe from the one expected the more removed they become from the text and the less chance of engagement.

I haven’t yet read all of Boyne’s work – that’s an on-going pleasure – but A Traveller at the Gates of Wisdom is not the book to knock The Heart’s Invisible Furies (2017) from the No 1 spot of the best of Boyne’s work; nor A Ladder to the Sky (2018) from the No. 2 position … in this reader’s opinion.  

You can buy the book, in various formats, here

 

My Brother’s Name is Jessica by John Boyne

John Boyne pic
Irish writer, John Boyne.

Earlier this year John  Boyne found himself in the middle of a media storm about his new book, My Brother’s Name is Jessica. The transgender community, especially on twitter, went for him fiercely: the title itself was considered offensive.

Mya Nunnaly, a poet, wrote an open letter to Boyne which includes,

You {John} write that “however, a friend of mine, born a boy, came out as transgender in his early 20s and over the last few years has been both struggling with and embracing his new identity.” HER new identity, John. HER early 20s.

As I understand it, the moment a boy (say) reveals that he believes he is a girl it is incumbent of everyone to treat her with respect and use her name and the appropriate pronoun. In fact I should’ve written ‘the moment a boy (say) reveals that she believes she is a girl…’

It may have caused less offence had the title been, My Sister’s Name was Jason.

The other issue was the use of the word cis. The word originally was, and is, used in molecular science but has been adopted by the transgender community as the opposite of trans. I am a cis man because I live as the gender of my birth. Most people are of cis-gender. Transgender are people who don’t live as the gender of their birth. Boyne inflamed the debate even further by publicly writing in the Irish Times on April 13, 2019, a piece entitled, Why I support trans rights but reject the word ‘cis. However, a word, when given an opposite, is strengthened. If our language only had the word ‘tall’ and its opposite was simply ‘not tall’ anyone who was ‘not tall’ would, I believe, feel left out, thought about in the negative, disrespected; but having their own word, ‘short’ gives both words equal standing, equal weight, and therefore gives equal respect.

I often feel that if the word ‘black’ in American society was able to be used as the equal opposite of the word ‘white’, which is the correct use, and not as ‘less than’ the word ‘white’ race relations in the US would be a lot healthier.

I see the word ‘cis’ as just another adjective to describe me. If I was in a group discussion about international politics with people of different nationalities it would be appropriate to begin my opinion with, ‘Well, as an Australian caucasian man I think ……’; similarly, if I was in a group discussion about diet with people who were either vegans, pescatarians, or omnivores it would be appropriate to begin my opinion with ‘Well, as a meat-eater I think …; and if I was in a group discussion about gender with a group that included trans people it would be appropriate to begin my opinion with ‘Well, as a cis man I think…’ It is just another adjective to use appropriately when necessary.

However, the focus is not on Jason/Jessica but on her younger brother, Sam, who represents Boyne’s chosen audience:  young cis readers. This is his sixth book for young readers, the most successful being The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas (2006). Sam tells it as he sees it: Boyne has chosen Sam as the first-person narrator. The language is clear and simple and a lot of what goes on around him he doesn’t fully understand. This background is heightened by his parent’s work: his mother is a cabinet minister, Secretary of State, eye-ing off the Prime Ministership, with his father as her Chief of Staff. The stakes are high and the media are always lurking in the bushes. 

The title is clear and  basically foretells the story. It is actually a quote from the text; a text narrated by a cis boy who like other cis people don’t understand trans people and sometimes get it wrong, particularly with language. As one trans journo put it in Boyne’s defence … he’s on our side; he’s waving our flag, he just got it upside down.  

“In writing My Brother’s Name is Jessica my hope is that children and young adults—particularly ones who are perhaps not already familiar with transgender issues—will come to this book and start to understand that anyone struggling with these issues needs support and compassion, not judgment. I have tried to write the best novel that I can. I might have succeeded or I might have failed, but I stand by it. I welcome debate and am interested in people’s views on this subject. I do not believe that the trans community bears any relationship to, or any responsibility for the abuse I have received online. I stand 100% behind all trans people, I respect them as brave pioneers, I applaud their determination to live authentic lives despite the abuse they also receive, and I will always do so.”                                                                                                                    John Boyne

 

The Congress of Rough Riders by John Boyne

John Boyne pic
Irish writer, John Boyne, writer of the wildly successful, The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas (2006).

John Boyne, among many things, is an adventurous writer, and by that I don’t mean he writes adventure stories – despite the title of this one; he is adventurous in what he choses to write and how he writes. His books have included historical figures and events, stretching time, multi-narratives, contemporary issues, varying sexualities, hysterically funny scenes, teary climaxes, novels for adults as well as young readers. The Congress of Rough Riders (2001) is a double narrative; one concerns the latter life of William Cody, aka Buffalo Bill, the other concerns his great-grand son, also William Cody, but born in England and who forever is trying to separate his contemporary life from his famous ancestor’s.

However, it is his second published novel, and it feels like it. It is a sweeping saga that sweeps lightly over its subjects. I was engaged and entertained, but not deeply involved. I’ve read his last two works, The Heart’s Invisible Furies (2017), his best (so far), and A Ladder to the Sky (2018); I was deeply involved in both of them – in fact I sank so far into them, especially the former, that I didn’t want them to end. Riders, however, felt like a novel of a writer that was nurturing his talent, gaining confidence, and honing his skills, destined for greater things, which I can confidently tell you, he  has.

He also has the enviable skill of looking at a historical event or character from an unusual angle, and if the historical truth doesn’t allow such an angle, well, he alters things a bit so it can. This I feel is the way of a true novelist. His literary palette is boundless, as it should be. He is fearless.

With 17 books in 18 years he is no slouch and having just, this year, discovered him there’s a wealth of writing to uncover.

A poster for Buffalo Bill's Wild West, Congress of Rough Riders, 1899

Watch and listen to John Boyne talk at the Wimbledon Book Festival in 2013 where he is talking to mainly aspiring young novelists in the audience.

For all things John Boyne-ish check out his website.

You can buy the ebook of The Congress of Rough Riders here.

A Ladder to the Sky by John Boyne

John Boyne pic
Irish writer, John Boyne.

This is a masterful work as well as a bloody good story. Boyne uses several narrators, first person, third person, even second person to tell the blackening ambitious story of Maurice Swift, handsome, clever, manipulative, ruthless, and fiercely driven to be a writer. The only problem is his talent is limited, very limited; but this doesn’t stop him, although at great cost to those around him. At each section you wonder, ‘where is Boyne taking me now?’ It’s exhilarating to let yourself go, to totally trust the writer to never let you down; to give you insights into his literary world, and into the mechanisms of novel writing itself.

John Boyne is an Irish writer of some experience. He writes for young readers and for adults. His greatest success was his young-adult novel The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas (2006). I discovered him via his previous novel for adults, The Heart’s Invisible Furies (2017 ) another accomplished work of tragedy, love, and humour. He’s great with the comic, laugh-out-loud stuff. Check out my blog post on this remarkable book here.

Every book, by anyone, has its own universe. Most of the time the universe of the book is exactly the universe of the reader: our universe. However, this is not always the case. In ….Pyjamas, the central relationship is between the son of a Nazi Concentration Camp Commandant, and a prisoner-boy on the other side of the fence, the boy in the striped pyjamas. Some critics have accused Boyne of inaccuracies: in German death camps during WWII inmates would never come into contact with the families of the staff, as Boyne describes, even given a fence. This may be so in our universe, but in the universe as created by Boyne it is what happens. It is a universe of a different internal and external geography. Similarly the same criticism could be dished out to Boyne here, in Ladder … , but Boyne makes it easy to trust him. In the heady atmosphere of reading fiction there is an element of suspension of disbelief, exactly in the same way as it works in the theatre; as readers we need to let ourselves be beguiled. One of the signs of bad writing is when the writer does not do this. Good writing will always set you up effortlessly to allow you to boldly go where you have never been before; where you accept what may be unacceptable, or unknown, in your own universe.

And with so many narrators the reader is rewarded when the narrator becomes Maurice himself, but … beware! … you almost start to like him!

You won’t forget Maurice Swift for a very long time, but don’t get him confused with Highsmith’s Ripley; it could be easily done.

You can read a Q&A with John Boyne about this new book here.

It was released in many countries, including Australia, in August, 2018.

You can buy the ebook here.

I am keen to read whatever Boyne has written, and will write. I need to make some room on my shelves.

The Heart’s Invisible Furies by John Boyne

John Boyne pic
Irish writer, John Boyne.

Many years ago, on a small plane trip – the plane was small, not the trip –  as we were about to land in a provincial Queensland town, I continued to assiduously read my book. I was laughing so much, trying not to, but not succeeding, that my eyes were streaming, my nose running, and my face felt hot and red; the flight attendant broke the rules, unbuckled, and hurried to my seat to ask if I needed medical assistance. I just held up the book; I was unable to speak. She understood. Maybe she’d read it too. It was the hit of the season. The hysterical section was the Nativity Scene from A Prayer for Owen Meany by John Irving. The next time I laughed out loud, many decades later (yes, decades), was with this book, and the (highly illegal) Dinner Party Scene, from early on in The Heart’s Invisible Furies by John Boyne. Ironically Boyne has dedicated this book to Irving.

Making people laugh via the written word, and only the written word, is an extremely difficult and hazardous task. You can’t under play it or over sell it, and you certainly can’t ‘back-explain’ it; it’s all to do with tone, and tone is like a law of physics: it only happens when the universal conditions are absolutely right. It’s as if you need to foster a certain psychological state of mind, and write the episode with as much truthfulness and sincerity as you possibly can – don’t elaborate – just tell it, and if the tone is right, it will be hysterical. If it isn’t you can’t go back and make it right, edit it funny, you have to delete it all and start again. A plane will only fly if all the necessary preparations and current circumstances, weather, wind, mechanical health, operational skill, and power source, are perfect.

The dinner party – and it’s impossible to explain why it’s illegal, you’ll just have to read it to find out – is on page 92, but the preparation for it, and the other laugh-out-loud bits, preparation for the tone, I mean, in true Irving-esque fashion, begins right from the first killer sentence; and by the way, the opening sentence of Owen Meany has to be the killer-opening-sentence in all literature. There was a time when I knew it by heart and it became my dinner-party piece for some time after. I can’t sing, tell a joke, or play the piano, you see.

Boyne considers Irving a mentor, and Irving should be chest-thumpingly proud.

It’s impossible for Boyne to escape the moniker of “author of The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas” which he understands only too well, and he’s certain it will appear on his grave stone, so internationally popular was the book and film; but it changed his life making writing full time not only a possibility but a happy necessity.

Boyne was born in 1972. Ireland brought him up but the Church brought him down. He still suffers from its cruelty and hypocrisy. He’s not alone. His anger is present in this book but, much to his credit, he’s fashioned it into a cutting humour without lessening the truth of his understandable hatred.

The Heart’s Invisible Furies explains the life of Cyril Avery, although not a real Avery, from his pre-birth to two months before his death; from 1945 to 2015; and it is also the story of Ireland over that time; from a society dominated, straightjacketed, and suffocated by the Catholic Church, under the guise of strengthening morality, to one that legalises same-sex marriage. It’s a hell of a journey.

It’s full of surprising events, fashion, villains, extremely bad behaviour, political unrest, beauty, deception, selfishness, redemption, tears – yours as well as the character’s, death, forgiveness, love, birth in the midst of murder, politicians behaving badly, coincidences, literature, weddings, doctors behaving courageously, dreams – both fulfilled and dashed, sentiment, laughter, bigotry, violence, and even the ludicrous; in fact the entire palette that paints our lives that all conspires to prove that age-old adage, nobody’s perfect. And all these elements are wound around a cast of characters you won’t easily forget, and nor would you want to.

Boyne skillfuly uses many literary devices to tantalise and seduce his readers: he drops in an outcome before explaining how it happened; he triggers the reader’s memory before the character’s; and, best of the lot, dramatic irony: when the reader knows more that the characters do.

I love this book and I’ve recommended it to others, who too have loved it. I’m preparing a space on my bookshelf, between Jane Bowles and Peter Carey. You can get the book, in various formats, here.