John Boyne has previously been on my radar with his book, The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas, aimed at younger readers but one that can be enjoyed by adults alike. I was thoroughly moved by it but hadn’t thought about him as a go-to author since, until I espied A History of Loneliness, read the back and wondered how Boyne was going to tackle the incredibly thorny issue of the Catholic Church’s role in covering up years of abuse by its very own priests.
I have to say that he has done it expertly. Our narrator is Father Odran Yates, a man reflecting on his life from his childhood, to his ordainment, to subsequent appointments into roles as a priest, on his family relationships and friendships. The narrative is not chronological and it reads like a life revealed; a life that has previously been thought to be one thing, but as Odran delves deeper into what he remembers, is actually showing itself to be something else.
Odran is a likeable man: he strives to do the best he can with what he has been presented although it is also fair to say that he comes across as a bit of a wimp at times. He becomes a priest ostensibly because his mother willed it and for want of ambition in any other field. He tries hard to be there for parishioners but, whether through lack of confidence or the inability to see himself as someone to guide others, he is quite a static figure, capable of greatness but not wanting the attention.
When the relentless abuse of children by priests, people of trust, comes under scrutiny, Odran is faced with a quandary founded in guilt: did he know what was going on in the insular world around him? Or did he choose not to see it? And questions for the reader: is he as naïve as he would like to present himself? Or is there a sense that he is unable to see it because it would not suit him to see it?
This is why I enjoyed the book; in fact, I would state that this is one of the best books that I have ever read. Boyne is the master storyteller. The book is brilliantly written in the way it evolves; the way that secrets are revealed; the way that it is Odran himself who reveals them; the dialogue between characters; the encounters described between clergymen and family; the way that the issues were seen by the public and decried or disbelieved.