I grew up in Catholic schools, lived just down the block from the Church, was an Alter Boy, and later taught at the Catholic School I graduated from. I had heard many rumors about the monastery across the street. But none of those experiences prepared me for the excellent devastation that is John Boyne’s novel A HISTORY OF LONELINESS.
Father Odrun is a good Irish priest - touched by horrible tragedy in childhood - whose mother declares he has a vocation shortly thereafter, sending him – literally and figuratively – on the road to Rome. Initially, he is a maddingly passive hero – not doing things he really should, taking the path that his instincts and soul tell him should be ignored. It made for some slow going in the first half of the book.
But then, as with all the of the John Boyne books I have read, the plotting becomes so intense as the past and present collide again and again in subsequent chapters. The history of the church in Ireland is well woven into the narrative. And the slow decay of the church in the end overwhelms. But what is excellent in this telling is that the price to be paid is personal as well as potent. There are only a couple of heroic moments in the novel.
Can we ever really know which of our friends is a monster, and which a saint? Are there secrets so obviously we refuse to see them, or truths buried right in front of us. You don’t have to be Catholic to understand and appreciate those dilemmas.
I was shaken by reading the final chapters of the book. Did we really know the teachers our parents put their faith in? Did I know my co-faculty members who drove sporty cars and lived a life of earthly glory as they spoke about heavenly benefits?
Only more great works like A HISTORY OF LONELINESS will enable us to continue to dig and dig and dig till all the harrowing truths about hundreds of years of Catholic tradition are laid bare.
Bibliography of John Boyne
2000: The Thief of Time
2001: The Congress of Rough Riders
2006: Next of Kin
2008: Mutiny on the Bounty
2009: The House of Special Purpose
2011: The Absolutist
2013: This House is Haunted
2014: A History of Loneliness
2017: The Heart’s Invisible Furies
2018: A Ladder to the Sky
2020: A Traveler at the Gates of Wisdom
Novels for Younger Readers:
2006: The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas
2010: Noah Barleywater Runs Away
2012: The Terrible Thing that Happened to Barnaby Brocket
2013: Stay Where You Are and Then Leave
2015: The Boy at the Top of the Mountain
2019: My Brother’s Name is Jessica
Short Story Collections:
2015: Beneath the Earth