Before I picked up John Boyne’s The Heart’s Invisible Furies (Amazon | Indiebound), I must confess that I barely knew anything about Ireland. The most I’ve read about the country and its history was from Michael Pollan’s book The Botany of Desire, wherein he mostly talked about how a crop, the infamous potato, from a historical, political and epistemological context in the country.
The book centers around Cyril Avery, an Irish gay man who survived. Emphasis on the last word because he did, in every essence, survived everything he went through from being carried in his mother’s womb in the beginning of the book until its last page.
I was traipsing in the Riviera Maya when I started reading the book so that probably made it a little harder for me to get acclimated to. While I was burying my feet in the warm Caribbean sand, it occurred to me that The Heart is probably not the best beach read (whatever that means). But I forged ahead, certain that Boyne had an important story to tell with Avery.
And boy did he! I wasn’t prepared for the kind of violence in the book, even though it’s the kind I’ve known throughout my life even as a young girl in the Philippines. Ireland in 1945 following the declaration of a free Irish State in 1922 was largely influenced by the Roman Catholic Church. Spain brought Catholicism to the Philippines in the 1500s as part of conquest strategy, while Catholicism in Ireland dates back to the fifth century with a history rich with violence itself.
This violence brought on by the Catholic Church: from Cyril’s mother’s exile from her town after getting pregnant out-of-wedlock to the pervasiveness of homophobia in Irish society which resulted to violent deaths. It wasn’t surprising then when one of the characters, whose lover was murdered by his own father on accounts of being gay, would say this:
At the core of The Heart is a young man wanting to live out his life authentically, even as he was surrounded by events and situations that revealed what would happen to him if he did. With its steadfast allegiance to the Catholic Church, any detractor from the norm (specially gay people) set by the Church would suffer.
And suffer indeed gay men did, as incident after incident unfolded before Cyril’s eyes. Shaming and condemning of gay people became a norm, confirming his worst fears. After an incident where his boss was found out to have a gay lover, Cyril became the recipient of a homophobic rant rife with the kind of hatred and bigotry enough to crush every queer person’s dream of living out loud.
Avery left Ireland. He settled in Amsterdam where he immersed himself in history and art, where he met his husband. It was when I got this part that I enjoyed reading the book because it gave me so much hope. That there was a ray of light in Cyril’s life, in spite of what he had gone through in his home country.
Boyne’s account of Avery’s life is also filled with quirky characters and details that were at times funny, at times over-the-top. There were his adoptive parents, both uninvolved with their adopted son’s life (the adopted part was always emphasized every time he was introduced). There was the best friend who was in love with. His sister that he almost married. To read about one man’s life feels like an accomplishment, because they stay with you for so long. I felt this about Cyril. I rooted for him in every single endeavor, whether in dark back alleys where he had sex with strangers or when he was about to meet his husband’s parents for the first time.
The Heart is truly a fascinating read, once you get used to Boyne’s writing style. It is critical because it touches on so many issues in the gay community: the role of the Church or religion, homophobia, our often complicated relationships with family, the AIDS crisis.
At first, I wasn’t sure why Lebanese writer Rabih Alameddine came into mind when I started imagining Cyril in his 50s. And then it dawned on me that I did hear Alameddine speaking about AIDS at a reading of his book The Angel of History. I remember him saying how easy it was to forget about the deaths brought about by AIDS and homophobia, and all the struggles of the gay community in the past. And then it hit me: both Alameddine and Boyne wrote to remember, to memorialize. It is our duty then, as readers, to never forget.
* * *