2017 seems to have, as far as my reading choices are concerned, kept the best till last. The following review might sound as if I’ve been knocking back the sherries and become overly-infused with Christmas goodwill, but no, it’s just that I’ve spent the last few days in the company of this book which is undoubtedly the best book I’ve read (excluding re-reads) since I started this blog. It may very well be my favourite book of this decade.
I suppose we are all on the look-out for what we would consider to be “the perfect book”, the book that exactly matches the reader, the book which represents all that we are looking for in our reading and this, for me, may very well be it. Too often I’ve chosen a novel wondering if it could be “the one” and it hasn’t lived up to my expectations, or the hype, or it is unable to sustain the potential throughout the course of its pages. This, I think, has managed to pull together all that I look for in my fiction into one tidy volume.
The odd thing is that I’ve never actually read anything by Irish writer John Boyne before. I have had a copy of “The Boy With Striped Pyjamas” on my shelves for some time, but I don’t think I’ve yet g0t over seeing the very good film adaptation. My partner, who has read it, said it was one of the best books he has read, so perhaps the writing was on the wall. “Pyjamas” is aimed at the older child/YA market and that is where, up to now, Boyne has perhaps been most celebrated. I have picked up his books in shops and on library shelves and thought “I must get round to reading that”, but so far I haven’t. It feels like there’s almost been a kind of courtship before I committed myself to this author. So why has this worked so well for me? Why is there such a match?
It’s a possibility that nationality has something to do with it. As far as I know I haven’t got a drop of Irish blood in me but I’m often attracted by the work of Irish authors. In recent years novels by Paul Murray, Donal Ryan and Sara Baume have appeared near the top of my end of year lists and there have been a number more who have written books that have really impressed me, including Anne Enright, Nick Laird, Sebastian Barry, Jess Kidd and Graham Norton. I have found myself favouring Irish and Irish-set novels (Hannah Kent’s “The Good People) and Emma Donoghue’s “The Wonder” both springing to mind) on this very blog.
Is it also because it has a gay central character and the novel explores a life-long battle with his own sexuality dominated by the repression of mid twentieth century Ireland. Gay themed novels are likely to resonate and Allan Hollinghurst, Sarah Waters, Armistead Maupin, Michael Carson and David Leavitt have written such novels which are amongst my all-time favourites. This book has pushed itself to the front of such esteemed company.
I’m also looking for characters to emotionally respond to and, boy, do I here, not just with the main characters but with a superbly drawn supporting cast which creates a novel of depth and feeling. I also like a book which is going to make me laugh, as so few do, and even fewer do so consistently. Paul Murray (another Irish author) with his tale of Irish financial institutions “The Mark & The Void” was the last to make me laugh as much as this.
I’m also a sucker for an epic sweep and this novel spans from 1945 to the present day. There is a potential pitfall here, which I’ve highlighted often and that is I can be reading a book and loving the narrative flow then the section ends and it’s twenty years later and you’re left trying to re-establish who is who and what’s going on. The danger being, of course, if you don’t like the new time-frame as much you find yourself yearning for a return to the earlier section. This is also a trap faced by multi-narrative novels. Here, I did feel occasionally saddened that a section I was so much into had ended but what came next was just as involving or even better. At over 700 pages it is not the longest novel I have read this year but avoids all of the potential pitfalls of the fuller-figured work and becomes a rare thing – a long novel that I just did not want to end.
Boyne keeps to the one first-person narrative and that person is Cyril Avery who begins his tale with his pregnant mother being denounced as a whore by the parish priest in the midst of the Mass, leading her to having to flee her village and deal with Cyril’s inevitable arrival in a Dublin where a single mother with child is not a good option for survival. Cyril is moved on and this is the tale of his life. I’m not giving much away in order to maximise your reading pleasure. I knew nothing about this book when I started it which heightened the experience and made the unpredictable turn of events throughout an absolute joy. I did spot that Rachel Joyce had enthused on the cover “Invest in this journey because it will pay you back forever” and I can’t remember agreeing with on-cover blurb more. Finishing it today (and I really slowed down on purpose, another great sign) I’m feeling quite bereft and am almost tempted to start the whole thing again, but recalling the recent memory of the Xmas tin of “Celebrations”, to gorge myself again so soon might be too much of a good thing.
Looking back over this I don’t know why I’ve spent the last few hundred words justifying why I’m praising this novel so much. Just get over it! It’s a superb book! I know that I’m stingier with my star ratings and with words of praise than many of the bloggers I follow and read but for me this book is exactly what the five star rating was made for. If you award the maximum to too many how can you ensure that the very, very best stand out.
The Heart’s Invisible Furies was published as a Black Swan Paperback in December 2017. Many thanks to Netgalley and to the publishers for the review copy.