Genre: Irish Fiction, LGBT, Historical Fiction
Narrative Style: First person, Chronological
Synopsis: Cyril Avery’s adoptive parents never miss an opportunity to tell him that he is adopted and so not a real Avery. Cyril feels like he doesn’t really fit in anywhere and he soon realises that being adopted isn’t the only thing that is different about him. Being gay in Ireland in the 1950s isn’t easy and Cyril struggles with his sexuality. The novel recounts events from Cyril’s life at seven year intervals, taking the reader from the 1950s to the present day.
Reading Challenges: 2020 Alphabet Soup – Author Edition
This was a very enjoyable read – as might be expected from John Boyne. It was different from the other two books that I’ve read by him as it seemed a much more personal project than The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas or The Absolutist. Being gay and Irish clearly had a big influence on the subject matter of this book.
The novel starts with the story of Catherine Goggin, hounded out of her home town by the priest for becoming pregnant out of wedlock. She travels to Dublin to have the baby, planning to have it adopted as she will not be able to keep it as a single woman in the 1940s. On the bus, she meets Sean MacIntryre who is also running away from home because he is gay and he offers her a place to stay until the baby is born.
The story of Catherine’s child, Cyril Avery starts when he is seven years old and continues at seven year intervals until he is seventy seven. The novel covers a lot of ground in both Irish and LGBT history, taking in the power of the clergy, bombs, kidnapping, prostitution, AIDS, violence against gay people to name but a few. For the most part, this is fine. Boyne is a sensitive writer and covers issues in a very human way but it does sometimes make it obvious that this is fiction and not actually someone’s life.
I found the beginning of the novel very readable. I couldn’t put it down. Cyril becomes friends with Julian Woodbead at age seven and their friendship lasts for a long time. Cyril quickly realises that he is in love with Julian which is unfortunate as Julian is enthusiastically heterosexual. Some of the funniest parts of the novel came with Julian’s boasting about his sexual conquests and also the scrapes that he gets Cyril into.
Cyril hides his sexuality, reluctant to even admit it to himself which leads to furtive encounters and lots of loneliness. Early on, he acquires a girlfriend, Mary Margaret, who luckily for him, does not want a sexual relationship. Boyne manages to find the humour in this situation but he also stresses how difficult it is for Cyril to put forward a version of himself that society would find acceptable.
As the novel progresses – and Cyril grows older – the story becomes less interesting. Without spoiling the story, there is only one romance in Cyril’s life and that does not last into old age. As is the way in life, I suppose, things start happening to other, younger characters which Cyril mainly observes. Even at the beginning, Cyril is never the life and soul so when life slows down for him, he becomes a bit boring.
This is the main reason that I didn’t give it five stars. That, and the fact that sometimes the plotting is a little clumsy. In the section set in New York when Cyril is volunteering at an AIDS hospital, the irony of the situation he finds himself in is heavy handed to say the least. There are also lots of coincidences and chance meetings (between Cyril and his mother, for example) which I found a little annoying. Cyril shows a remarkable lack of curiosity about his mother and it is another chance meeting that eventually means they realise they are mother and son.
Overall, though this was a great read and it certainly opened my eyes as to how horrible things were in Ireland because of the power of the Catholic church. The novel ends on a positive note with Cyril’s grandson, George, and his boyfriend, Marcus representing a new and more open generation which gives some hope for the future.