Review: The Heart’s Invisible Furies

I finally ticked the last book off my March TBR, with a little help from Gil @ Gil Reads Books, who kindly volunteered to buddy read it with me! (I’ve linked her review, be sure to check it out!) John Boyne’s The Heart’s Invisible Furies is a nearly 600-page LGBTQ+ historical fiction novel that reads quickly for its size and has received a lot of love since its 2017 release. Though it didn’t quite live up to the massive hype for me, Gil and I were largely in agreement about this one, and I had a good time reading and discussing it despite a few disappointments.

theheart'sinvisiblefuriesIn the novel, Cyril Avery narrates 70 years of his life, beginning with his mother’s eventful pregnancy and ending with the ghost of a friend telling him the (fast-approaching) date of Cyril’s own death. In between, the reader is given an overview of the challenges faced by gay men in Ireland from the 1940’s onward. The prevalence of strict Catholocism and the illegality of homosexuality in Ireland through much of the 1900s made life very difficult for a lot of people who, like Cyril, were forced to hide their true identities, create elaborate cover-ups, and/or leave Ireland altogether in order to simply exist as themselves.

“It was a difficult time to be Irish, a difficult time to be twenty-one years of age and a difficult time to be a man who was attracted to other men. To be all three simultaneously required a level of subterfuge and guile that felt contradictory to my nature.”

I’ll start on a positive: I think Boyne does a great job of conveying how oppressively unfair the social, political, and Catholic response to homosexuality and AIDS was in Ireland (and beyond, to some extent) until very recently. Politicians outed as homosexual would lose their careers. Men who confessed to doctors their shame and unhappiness over their sexual preferences were given cruel and ineffective “treatments.” Children were convinced by authority figures from a young age that the roads to Hell are many and being a homosexual is one of the most certain paths. Being gay in this place, in this time, led to arrest, loss of respect and even recognition from friends and family, direct verbal and physical violence from utter strangers, and more. Cyril’s introductions to sexuality are secretive after-hours public encounters that leave him feeling guilty and far from love. The Heart’s Invisible Furies gave me a good sense of the difficulties faced on every side, and the political/religious atmosphere of the country in these years that led to such intolerant reactions.

” ‘What’s wrong with you people?’ he asked, looking at me as if I was clinically insane. ‘What’s wrong with Ireland? Are you all just fucking nuts over there, is that it? Don’t you want each other to be happy?’ / ‘No,’ I said, finding my country a difficult one to explain. ‘No, I dont think we do.’ “

Unfortunately, a lot of the rest of the book’s potential positives were undermined for me by the sheer absurdity of the narration. I think my mention above about Cyril narrating his mother’s pregnancy and communing with ghosts is a good indicator of how very whimsical Boyne’s narrative choices are here. Though on their own none of the plot details would seem quite so far-fetched, all together it makes for a particularly comedic journey. I can’t deny that it was fun to read and guess which outlandish plot twist was coming up next (I did not have “villain crushed by statue in the nick of time” on my bingo card, sadly), but I had so much difficulty suspending disbelief that I could barely take any of the plot seriously. There’s a ton of ground being covered here, and I hate to bash this book because I do think it’s a decent (fictionalized) source of information for those who haven’t lived the experience; but perhaps its greatest fault is that it tries to encompass too much of the gay Irish experience within one man, and thus loses what strength it could have had in characterization. This might have been a very different experience if I had been better able to emotionally invest in Cyril’s saga of suffering.

As it is, I’ve heard of many of the horrors this book contains prior to reading it (the clandestine exchanges in parks after dark, the loveless marriages, the medical treatments, the prejudice). Shocking reveals were never going to win me over the way heartfelt characterization might have, and I found that lacking. The children don’t sound like children, the seven year time gaps between every chapter feel forced and make new character introductions belated and awkward, and relationships between them are difficult to understand without being explicitly told. Character reunions and deaths feel manipulative, exacerbated by the fact that each person in this story is so one-note that they read more like caricatures with a single personality trait each than actual people. Even the dialogue is presented very literally, lest the reader miss the point:

” ‘I just know that if she goes to America she’ll end up being raped by a black man and having an abortion.’ / ‘Jesus Christ,’ I said, spitting out my tea. ‘For God’s sake, Anna, you can’t say things like that.’ / ‘Why not? It’s true.’ / ‘It’s not true at all. And you sound very small-minded saying it.’ / ‘I’m not racist if that’s what you’re implying. Remember, my husband is Jewish.’ “

And yet, despite all the complaints I’ve lodged, I can’t deny that most of the read was engaging and entertaining, even if not in the way I expected or hoped for. I had a better time than with my last Boyne novel- A Ladder to the Sky. All in all, a mixed experience, though the fact that I seem to be in the minority with my complaints means I’d still readily recommend this book to anyone looking for a humorous, dramatic account of an important social issue.

My reaction: 4 out of 5 stars. This would probably have been a lower rating if I hadn’t enjoyed laughing my way through the most unrealistic of the plot points, and dissecting them all with Gil. Without a buddy I think I would have been even more frustrated than I was. I suspect I’m just not the right reader for Boyne’s style, though there’s enough to appreciate in his work that I’m not counting out trying more of his work in the future. I just won’t be rushing to pick it up.


The Literary Elephant

15 thoughts on “Review: The Heart’s Invisible Furies”

  1. Nice review! Gil is such a lovely blogger – I need to check her review on this book, too! I can’t see myself picking up another John Boyne book in any time in the near or far future, but it’s so interesting to see your reaction to this book, which was everywhere when it came out. It does not sound like the type of book I’d enjoy, but now I have quite a clear idea of it after reading your thoughts! 🙂

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thanks Naty! I think Gil’s review is up now as well, definitely check it out! 🙂
      I can definitely understand not wanting to pick up another Boyne book; I didn’t hate this one enough to swear him off forever, but there’s something about his style that clearly isn’t working for me. I think I’ll have to be REALLY excited about the premise before I’m convinced to try his work again! It’s too bad because I think his topics are interesting. I’m gald I could help give you an idea of this one!

      Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks! I’m glad I’m not the only one who had an unread copy. 🙂 I definitely think it’s a book worth giving a shot, hopefully you’ll have a good time with it!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Great review! I’m glad that this was an overall enjoyable read for you, especially given its length. I would have struggled with the 7-year-gaps between chapters too (I am easily frustrated by too much off-page development and awkward character introductions). Also “I did not have “villain crushed by statue in the nick of time” on my bingo card” made me laugh so hard! Did you actually make an “improbable plot point” bingo card?!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you! It is a surprisingly quick read for its size, which really helps. The 7-year gaps did frustrate me though! It caused a lot of telling rather than showing, to catch up on what had happened in those in-between years. I can’t imagine how long the book would’ve ended up without those gaps, but I wish the transitions had been smoother!

      Ha, I did not draw up an actual bingo card, but I did make some wild guesses mid-read! Gil and I had some pretty funny speculations about how the second half of the book would go when we checked in mid-book. We were right about a few things!

      Liked by 1 person

    1. That could be. This one came out in early 2017, so it might have beat some of that crowd but there’s definitely been an influx. I’ve read one other book by this author and didn’t find it quite as comedic, although in Ladder to the Sky he writes from the villain’s perspective (a writer who steals other writers’ work, at any cost) and makes that character so heartlessly cruel with so little explanation that I had a hard time taking that book seriously as well- it seems to be a consistent facet of Boyne’s style!

      Liked by 1 person

  3. It’s been a couple years but I remember mostly enjoying this one. You’re right in that it has a sort of cartoonish feel though in the way it all fits together. I think of Boyne as an author who is trying very hard to make the reader feel things, which occurs at the expense of realism in my opinion.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I could not agree more! Cartoonish is a perfect word for it, and I do suspect it comes as a result of Boyne trying a little too hard to succeed in one area to the detriment of another. There is plenty of tragedy in Cyril’s life, and I think Boyne is banking on the reader being swept up in it to the extent that he misjudges how far he can take the comedy without losing the effect. (I say he misjudges, and yet I seem to be one of very few readers who hasn’t given this one all 5 stars! Perhaps Boyne and I will have to agree to disagree on tactics.)

      Liked by 1 person

    1. For sure! 🙂 There’s no denying he was inventive about how to remove characters from the plot when they no longer served the narrative!

      Liked by 1 person

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