I lost a weekend to John Boyne’s world of Cyril Avery – and I’m still not the better of it. I’m recovering from a book hangover of the best kind.
The story is simple but complex. It is the life of Cyril Avery, from not long before his birth, to pretty soon before his death. It is the story of being gay in Ireland and the story of social change in Ireland, told from the 1940’s through to 2015. It is an emotional roller coaster.
If you have ever read The World According to Garp, or Prayer to Owen Meany, you will understand my reference in the title of the post. Boyne is channeling Irving in the best possible way. He stands the comparison well. It is up there with the best of his work.
Boyne starts angry. The opening lines will hook you and you won’t want to be let go. Cyril’s mother is denounced from the alter, physically kicked thrown out of the church and basically run out of town. If in the opening chapter you find yourself defending the clergy or Cyril’s grandparents, then you probably need to stop reading there. If you think gay people are sick and perverted you should probably read on as you might learn something, but you’ll probably stop reading early on.
After leaving her home town behind, Cyril’s mother heads off to Dublin on the bus where she begins her new life, with a grand plan in place that involves a hunchbacked old nun who will deliver Cyril to his adoptive parents.
What follows is the best part of 600 pages of tears and laughter. I know I swung from anger, to joy, to despair, and back again. The dialogue is sharp and quirky. Cyril’s upbringing is unconventional, but mostly believable, if occasionally absurd. The near misses between Cyril and his birth mother will probably frustrate you.
I read the book over the last weekend, as the Tuam Baby story was dominating headlines in Ireland. So anger at religious organisations was already in my system. The sad thing for Ireland is that many of the attitudes expressed and described in the book, you feel, are not in anyway over-hyped.There are too many scandals for the reader to not believe any of the more outrageous event or conversations that happen in the book. The strict conservative shadow of the Catholic Church reached into every part of society in Ireland. The sharpest barbs in this book are drafted in the funniest dialogue. Mary Margaret Muffet is a great character and you can easily imagine taking part in the cringe-worthy conversation towards the end with his daughter in law’s parents.
The object of Boyne’s contempt isn’t limited to the Catholic Church. Politicians and our general attitudes to women are the other principle targets. The occasional historical factual figure pops up, and some, like Charlie Haughey, get a bit of a shoeing.
Not all of the characters are drawn out or have depth to them. The modern segments aren’t maybe as good as the older ones. The book isn’t perfect, but it’s up there.
Overall I loved this book. First proper 5 star of the year. I was lucky in that I was able to just read for most of the weekend, so could get properly lost in Cyril. But in best book hangover traditions, I have no idea what to read next, although I do think I’ll be re-reading A Prayer to Owen Meany this year.