Monday, May 25, 2015

A History of Loneliness by John Boyne

I loved this book.  I wanted to read it because of my upcoming trip to Ireland - I'm reading as much as I can that is set there.  But what I really loved was the character development.

Odran Yates is a priest - he became one when his mother had a revelation of his calling while watching the Late Late Show one evening after she has become fervently religious following the tragic deaths of her husband and youngest son.  Odran never questions his mother and, when he arrives at the seminary, feels as if he has indeed landed where he belongs.  His "cellmate" is Tom Cardle, the tenth child of an abusive father who has forced him to become a priest.  He is not suited to it and eventually that becomes his downfall as he is implicated in numerous crimes.

Odran, meanwhile, suffers abuse and guilt in his later years just for being a priest and being tarnished by the reprehensible behaviour of other priests like Cardle and the blatant cover up of the scandal by the Church that the author clearly states runs all the way up the chain to the Pope.  I came away mostly feeling sorry for Odran - I don't think he purposely covered up the pedophelia, I think he was just hopelessly naive and believed others were as good as him, and as good at suppressing their natural urges (which he does but for a few lapses).  This is despite the direct impact of these crimes on both him as a boy and on other members of his family.

The book wanders seamlessly back and forth through time - from the present day, to his childhood, to his time at the seminary in Ireland and later in Rome, from the job he liked best hidden away in a Catholic school library to his time working in a parish.  We see his relationships with his parents, sister, nephews and Tom Cardle as well as how he is at times manipulated by people with power within the Church.

In sum, this is a fantastic character study and a great narrative about an explosive topic for the Catholic church.  I found it particularly gratifying to read it the weekend the population of Ireland voted in favour of permitting gay marriage.  How far the country has come from the time when Odran was a new priest and people on a train were fighting over who should give up their seat for him.

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