Do you have authors that you find you’ll drop everything else for whilst you’re reading their books? I have a few- John Boyne is one. And this book is a big one, covering the whole life of Cyril Avery, from his traumatic birth to a few months before his death.
The novel starts in West Cork as a young girl is shamed and physically thrown out of her parish by a priest during Sunday Mass. She finds herself on a bus to Dublin with a handsome stranger and A Plan that will eventually involve a hunchbacked Redemptionist nun, a charming banker and his novelist wife who is determined to never find her face on the tea towel celebrating Irish writers. And so begins Cyril’s life.
It’s often a lonely life, too. His adoptive parents (he’s never to call them anything but their first names and is often reminded that he’s not a ‘real Avery’) are not particularly interested in him; he falls in love with his very heterosexual best friend, Julian, as a child and he realises early on that he is gay in a country that either doesn’t believe that such a thing is possible or that it is something to be ashamed of. Cyril’s story takes the reader from the 1940s to the present day and from Dublin, Amsterdam, New York and back to Ireland again in the 00s. Along the way he has to confront a changing world, the wife he left at a wedding reception, society’s view and his own demons.
Boyne has created a novel that confronts the sexual moral panics of the 20th and early 21st century: unmarried mothers, AIDS and marriage equality and deals with each issue with an emotion and depth that I’m not sure I’ve come across before. There were chapters in which I was howling with laughter (Cyril’s adoptive parents, Maude and Charles were delightfully bizarre and sometimes I felt like I was reading conversations from Wonderland, they were so brilliantly, weirdly constructed. There’s a dinner party in which Charles is trying to win over some very important people which descends into light farce. Cyril himself is very funny, too- a sort of dry gallows humour which makes complete sense when you’ve read the whole book). I also cried at least twice. The characters in Cyril’s world are so well crafted and real that I felt actual, proper feelings about them. The women in particular drew me in- funny, feisty and interesting: Catherine, Cyril’s ‘real’ mother and Maude were especial favourites of mine.
Cyril could easily have been an irritating, unsympathetic character- but he’s not. And this is a coming-of-age novel in some ways, even though it could be argued that he doesn’t really ‘come of age’ until he’s in his late 20s and doesn’t truly understand who he is until he meets his birth mother in his 50s. And even though you’ve connected the dots yourself earlier, it’s still a satisfying moment in this man’s life who, despite everything, you desperately want a happy ending for. I genuinely loved every second I was glued to the page of this novel.