From 1945 Ireland to the passing of that country’s 2015 Marriage Equality Referendum, Boyne
embarks on a nostalgic exploration of the not-so distant past. That past is
something which Cyril Avery has never really valued and thankfully never revisited. Shame and judgment
are everywhere, from the moment 16-year-old Catherine Goggin is banished from the village of Goleen by fire-and-brimstone-spewing Father Monroe to Cyril Avery’s closeted attraction to his best friend, Julian Woodbead, who unapologetically admits that he’s a pervert and a sex maniac.
As early as age seven, Cyril recognizes a curious stirring in the pit of his stomach, an entirely new sensation that he cannot quite understand.
Boyne uses language in a way that not only illuminates his characters but earnestly brings them to life. The ugly truth emerges when Catherine is branded
a floozy. On a one-way bus ticket to Dublin, she meets kind, innocent Sean MacIntyre and then Sean’s best friend, the dark and recalcitrant Jack Smoot, who at first views Catherine as an interloper but later offers her a place to stay in his Chatham Street flat. In an attempt to remake her life, Catherine searches for work as a shop girl, eventually lying her way into a job at a tearoom, even
though Mrs. Hennessy, the manager, is of the view that a pregnant “married” woman must be at home with her husband.
“The world is a terrible place and it was our misfortune to have been born into it.” Catherine, Sean, and Jack thought they had left behind the cruelty of the priests
and their village’s politics. After tragedy strikes, Catherine is destined to leave her son in the hands of Maude and Charles Avery. Cecil is an impressionable young man who from an early age aches to act out his passions for Julian. Their friendship--cemented upon Julian’s arrival at Belvedere College--is shaded with Julian’s erotic talk of lesbians and of Maude Avery’s novels. Cyril is obsessed and frustrated with Julian, certain that Julian would never want to do “any of those things with him.” Cyril has no problem disregarding the truth--to others and even to himself--but only because the truth always seems so painful.
In 1959, Cyril knows nothing about homosexuality except that to act on such needs is a crime that could result in a jail sentence--“unless of course you were a priest in which case it was a perk of the job.” Back in rambling, book-filled Dartmouth Square, Charles shows scant interest in his wife and his adopted son. Neglected by his parents and aware that he’s different from other boys, Cyril longs for an intimate friendship and approval of his peers. Cyril, however, is hijacked
by what the priests refer to as a “disease” and blindsided by a society in which boys “wicked enough to have lustful, dirty thoughts” about another boy would surely go straight to hell.
Though the story occasionally seems to skip a beat and is perhaps a little too generous with coincidence, Boyne excels in showing how Cyril navigates through a cruel, bigoted landscape. Cyril quickly learns to develop a level of subterfuge and guile contrary to his nature. Faced with the possibility of marriage, first to judgmental Mary-Margaret and then to Alice, Julian’s beautiful, devoted sister, Cyril’s world rapidly descends into a dark cave of duplicity and lies. In an effort to assuage his “indecent thoughts, and immoral fantasies”--coupled with a yearning that is as intense as his need for food and water--Cyril embarks on nighttime excursions to the banks of the Grand Canal and furtive explorations into the hidden passages and narrow laneways of Baggot Street, where the darkness conceals his crimes. He’s convinced
that he’s a degenerate and a pervert: “the more I examined the architecture of my life, the more I realized how fraudulent ere its foundations.”
The novel shifts in tone when Cyril finds himself living a more enlightened life in Amsterdam. His boyfriend, the kindly Bastiaan, is the most important man Cyril will ever know in his life--aside from Charles or Julian, the only man whom Cyril will ever truly love. But bigotry and tragedy
are never really far away, even in cosmopolitan New York, where Cyril and his friends face a dinner group’s disgust, or on the
seventh floor of Mount Sinai Hospital’s AIDS, ward where straight and gay alike await their deathly fate. Time moves slowly as Boyne spans half a century, swooping in for brief moments on conversations at critical intervals. From Ireland to Amsterdam to New York, the real focus is on the country that Cyril has come to loathe, a place filled with “miserable bigots, adulterous husbands, and conniving churchmen.” The climactic set piece, a reunion of sorts and a wedding, shows that even though Catherine and Cyril are damaged and bitter, their past hasn’t stopped them fighting for what they believe is right.
History points out the terrible difficulties of being true to one’s self even when it runs counter to society and the church’s mores. Of course, society can change too, but we have to wait until the older the players are dead and their scandals are destroyed. The author passionately examines Cyril and Catherine’s fragile psyches, left behind in the haunting wake of intolerance. Instead of a decisive end to a horrific time in Ireland’s history, there is only remembrance--and in the case of this emotional novel, a celebration of equality, fused with the fragile gift of lives in footnotes.