Full disclosure: I received a copy of this book from Penguin Random House of Canada in exchange for an honest review.
A History of Loneliness by John Boyne was one of the more difficult books I’ve read in recent memory. It made me sick, angry, and incredibly sad. Sometimes all at once.
Odran Yates is a Catholic priest. He’s been moved from the school where he was happily looking after the library and feigning an interest in rugby for the boys, to the parish of his old friend Tom Cardle. He misses his school and looks back over his life to try and figure out how he ended up here. We go back to the week at the beach in Wexford with his family that had such tragic consequences; the day his parish priest came to talk to him about inappropriate conduct with the neighbour girl; his time in Rome for his final year of seminary and how it all kind of came undone. Tom and he were roommates at seminary and through the years they continue their friendship, even though Odran finds it odd that Tom keeps getting moved; Tom comes to say the mass when Odran’s mother passes away, stays with the family for the night and afterwards Odran’s nephew Aidan seems different somehow; Odran stays with Tom and his housekeeper keeps trying to insist that he stay with Tom while he goes about parish business.
I’m a lapsed Catholic. I grew up in the Church, went to Catholic school, Sunday mass, dreaded the years where Christmas fell on a Wednesday since it meant I’d have to go to mass every three days for two weeks. I liked the rituals, the marking of time by the liturgical seasons. But then some things came up with the Church that I had a hard time swallowing and I stopped going to mass as regularly. I became a Christmas and Easter person for a while until I stopped altogether.
A History of Loneliness was at once completely familiar and totally unrecognizeable. It evokes a time and place, an Ireland whose life revolves completely around the Church. Priests are deferred to in all, mothers bringing their wayward sons to the local priest to have them guide their boys towards adulthood. Young men told that they had a vocation in the Church, sent to seminary at the age of 17, sometimes completely against their will. Modern day Odran struggles against the new reality of the Church in Ireland, people that are angry at and suspicious of the priesthood, ensuring that their children are supervised at all times, looking for the Church to be held accountable for the untold damage that has been done. Eventually Odran has to confront what happened which is when I broke down reading it.
This book is the definition of the Edmund Burke quote “All it takes for evil to flourish is for good men to do nothing.” Even though Odran himself has never done anything other than the work that his mother told him was his vocation, he’s had to have thought over the years that something wasn’t right. Even when he’s confronted with the truth, Odran still can’t believe that this was covered up, that it went all the way to the top, that the Pope knew and did nothing. He realizes that he’s been a kind of accessory, has hidden himself away in the library, behind his books, pretending like bad things haven’t been happening.
Boyne pulls no punches. He calls out Popes Paul VI, John Paul II and Benedict XVI for knowing about the abuse suffered by boys at the hands of their priests and doing nothing. For hiding behind the power of their office, their infallibility as the head of the Church, and moving the problem to other parishes. It’s a fictional book but you know that it has it’s roots firmly planted in truth.
This is a book that will stay with me for a long time – I think I’m still working through my feelings about it. It is an exquisitely rendered story based on excruciatingly difficult subject matter. I’m not sure that I’m doing this book any justice. Just know that it is something else.