A History of Loneliness – John Boyne *SPOILERS*

I will try to write this review with the minimum of spoilers but I won’t be able to do it justice without some, so be warned before you read on:


This book is quite simply stunning, although it isn’t usually the type of book that I read.  I came across it when I was meandering around my local library with time to spare. The title caught my attention and the blurb on the book sounded interesting.  The next step for me is reading the first few pages to see if the book is readable.  I read the whole first chapter standing in the library so I knew this book was coming home with me!

I’ve been going through a bit of a book drought recently and was looking for something to break this.  It isn’t for want of books.  I’ve got plenty of those waiting to be read but I had to find something I was in the mood for and I felt that this could be the book.

The focus of the book is on the main character, Odran Yates.  The book starts off innocently enough.  It talks of Ireland, of Odran’s childhood and his relationship with his family.  It is a real narrative of Irish life during that time.  Odran’s mother gave up a good job to marry and have children.  Life isn’t what she imagined it would be.  She had a job as a glamorous air stewardess and she has traded it in for marriage, children and staying at home to keep house.  Life really isn’t as she imagined it.

Odran’s father wants to act.  He tries to follow his dream but is thwarted and humiliated.  He turns into an angry, bitter man and this has life altering consequences. Odran later notes that his father was most likely suffering from depression but of course in those dates it wan’t recognised or talked about.

There is a deep religious vein that runs through the novel and we see the influence that religion has on everyday life for the people of Ireland.  It is embedded in the community and throughout the lives of ordinary people.  If there is a problem with your wife or children, a family problem, you call in the priest. They are trusted implicitly.  culturally it is not just accepted, it is expected.  This turns out to be a dangerous trend.

After the tragedy that the family suffers, Odran’s mother decides that he has a calling to become a priest.  I feel that at this point you can see the weakness in Odran’s character.  He has no say in his destiny and unquestioningly goes on to accept his mother’s decision for him. Odran’s sister, Hannah, shows a stronger sense of character when she will not give in to her mother’s demands that she become a nun and goes on to marry a Norwegian, Kristian. I wonder if Odran would have been happier if he’d made his own life choices.

The amount of religious influence in people’s every day life is slightly unnerving and uncomfortable.  It doesn’t sit well with me feels a bit like mob rule because of how deeply ingrained in society it is.  Boyne goes on to evidence this when he talks of abuses of power and how priests get away with criminal activities for so long.  He shows that it is not just those involved in the criminal activities that are at fault, it is those that cover up, turn a blind eye or simply put it out of their mind.  They are as guilty as those who commit the acts, after all, these abuses of power could not continue if they were not tolerated and their peers reported the criminal activity to the police.  Easier said than done when the cover up goes right to the top.

Boyne’s writing style is deeply absorbing and he writes convincingly.  I found myself caring about the characters and feeling for Tom Cardle despite everything.  He never had a calling, was abused by his father.  Though it was not explicitly written, I think he was sexually abused by his father and this had a bearing on his later activity.  We see the beatings that Tom has to endure and he loses something of himself after the last beating when he ran away and is returned bruised and beaten.  Life in the seminary is difficult for him, though this does not excuse what he did

Odran annoyed me.  He isn’t a bad man but he is dense.  He doesn’t see what is in front of him, in fact he chooses not to see what is going on, especially with Aidan.  Odran is guilty by omission, a fact that plagues him through the years and leads him to question his friendship with Tom.  Was it friendship?  Were they close or is Odran mistaking a shared past and proximity of time for friendship?

This book has such depth to it.  It absorbed me.  I found myself thinking about it, looking forward to reading it.  It is so powerful.  I found myself with tears in my eyes when Odran finally confronts the truth and plucks up the courage to talk to Aidan.  Tears in my eyes and I was on the bus to work!  I didn’t care, I wanted to finish the chapter before I got to my stop!

Very uncomfortable in places but very compelling.  I couldn’t put his book down.  Boyne eloquently writes about abuses of power, the corruption of the Catholic Church and their role in covering up abuses.  He narrates beautifully, with fire and passion about the ‘rotten core’ of Ireland and the danger of unquestioning submission to a single organisation like the church.

I’d highly recommend this novel.  I will definitely be looking at more of Boyne’s novels.


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