A History of Loneliness
by John Boyne
c.2015, Farrar, Straus and Giroux
$26; 352 pages
Throughout your life, the faith you’ve held has sustained you.
In times of fear, you’ve prayed for courage. On troubled days, you’ve asked for favors. You’ve thrown gratitude heavenward, and you’ve demanded condemnation from the Higher Power you know. Some prayers are answered, some are not.
But what if your religion failed you or, as in the new book A History of Loneliness by John Boyne, if it quietly eased away?
Once Odran Yates’ mother informed him that he had “a vocation,” Odran never questioned that he would someday be a priest.
She told him that, shortly after their family of five became three in a tragedy they rarely discussed. She said it after she’d become devout and made Odran and his sister, Hannah, attend Mass every Sunday—and her proclamation made sense to him. So, as a sixteen-year-old, Odran went to Clonliffe College seminary in his native Ireland, where he roomed with Tom Cardle, the boy he considered his best friend.
While Odran was certain that he was perfectly suited to be a priest, Tom was another matter. Once, while in seminary, Tom tried to leave but his father brought him back, black and blue, and left him. Odran had wondered if that was why Tom was prone to fits of strangeness.
He’d lost contact with Tom years ago, but Odran had heard rumors that his friend was moved a lot, parish to parish. That seemed odd, and it’d been upsetting that Archbishop Cordington wanted Odran to leave his beloved position as librarian at a boys’ college to take over in Tom’s latest move. The Archbishop promised that it would be a short-term change, but weeks would become years.
With his sister ailing, his nephews estranged, and the job he loved lost, Odran hated being a mere parish priest, and he “didn’t know what to think.”
“But there’s the lie,” he said. “…I did know what to think. Only I could not bring myself to think it.”
Respectfully outraged, timely, scandalous, and loaded with more than a little controversy, A History of Loneliness shimmers like a multifaceted diamond. Indeed, I barely know where to start—perhaps with the character of Odran….
Odran is a simple man, a clueless go-along-to-get-along kind of guy who likes to think of himself as responsible and intuitive. He’s a likeable lad but not really friendship material; he’s predictable, gossipy, and staid except on the occasions when he doubts his faith and his vows. That’s when he surprises himself, as well as us but author John Boyne doesn’t stop there: in a setting of modern-day Ireland and Rome, Boyne populates this tale with close-lipped, complicated people; gives it dialogue rich with Irish brogue; and hands his readers plenty of exceptional back-plots.
That adds up to a stunner of a novel that feels like reading a movie, one that needs to jump to the top of your To-Read list today. But first—clear your calendar. Once you start A History of Loneliness, you don’t have a prayer.