Review – A History Of Loneliness by John Boyne

By | November 10, 2014

Odran Yates enters Clonliffe Seminary in 1972 after his mother informs him that he has a vocation to the priesthood. He goes in full of ambition and hope, dedicated to his studies and keen to make friends.

Forty years later, Odran’s devotion has been challenged by the revelations that have shattered the Irish people’s faith in the church. He has seen friends stand trial, colleagues jailed, the lives of young parishioners destroyed and has become nervous of venturing out in public for fear of disapproving stares and insulting remarks.
But when a family tragedy opens wounds from his past, he is forced to confront the demons that have raged within a once respected institution and recognise his own complicity in their propagation.
It has taken John Boyne fifteen years and twelve novels to write about his home country of Ireland but he has done so now in his most powerful novel to date, a novel about blind dogma and moral courage, and about the dark places where the two can meet. At once courageous and intensely personal, A History of Loneliness confirms Boyne as one of the most searching chroniclers of his generation.

To many, John Boyne will always be “the man who wrote The Boy In The Striped Pyjamas“, and to those who only know that book this one may come as somewhat of a surprise. He has long been one of my favourite authors, ranging from the enthralling The House Of Special Purpose (that last line, “So this is what it means to be alone”, still moves me to tears), through the wonderful Victorian gothic of This House Is Haunted, to the engrossing and very moving The Absolutist.  John Boyne has never written about his own country before, and in this wonderful book he has – very bravely – chosen to look at the changing place of the priesthood in Ireland and the whole range of associated moral issues. 

The story is told by Odran Yates, who joins the priesthood after the death by drowning of his father and young brother while on a family holiday, when his mother decides that he has “a calling”.  Odran is basically a good man, somewhat naive maybe, seeing the good in everyone and content to live a quiet life running the library in a school for boys. The story loops backwards and forwards through Odran’s life, where events happen around him that he either fails to see or perhaps chooses not to, and which leave him sadly broken. There are some quietly shocking events through this book, all quite beautifully and movingly written. The account of his train journey in his earlier life where the whole carriage vies to please him is in the starkest of contrast to his later experience in a public house when the place of the priesthood in daily life has so radically changed. The writing is immensely powerful and heartbreakingly sad – spare prose packing an enormous punch – and this is a book which will remain with me for a very long time. Simply wonderful.

My thanks to Patsy Irwin at Transworld Publishers for my advance reading copy.  A History of Loneliness was published by Doubleday on 4 September and is available in hardback and Kindle editions: the paperback will be published in May 2015.

John Boyne was born in Ireland in 1971.  He is the author of eight novels for adults and four for younger readers, including the international bestseller The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas, which was made into a Miramax feature film and has sold more than five million copies worldwide.  His novels are published in over forty-five languages.  He is married and lives in Dublin.  For more information on the author and his books, he has an excellent website, and is also on Twitter