Throughout your life, faith has sustained you. In times of fear, you've prayed for courage. On troubled days, you've asked for favours. You've thrown gratitude heavenward, and you've demanded condemnation from the Higher Power. Some prayers are answered, some are not. But what if your religion fails you or, as in John Boyne's “A History of Loneliness”?
Once Odran Yates' mother informed him that he had “a vocation,” Odran never questioned that he would someday be a priest. She told him that shortly after their family of five became three in a tragedy they rarely discussed. She said it after she'd become devout and made Odran and his sister, Hannah, attend Mass every Sunday – and her proclamation made sense to him. So, as a 16-year-old, Odran went to Clonliffe College seminary in his native Ireland, where he roomed with Tom Cardle, the boy he considered his best friend. While Odran was certain that he was perfectly suited to be a priest, Tom was another matter. Tom tried to leave but his father brought him back, black and blue. Odran had wondered if that was why Tom was prone to fits of strangeness. The novel picks up when Odran has lost contact with Tom, but had heard rumors that his friend was moved a lot, from parish to parish. That seemed odd, and it had been upsetting that Archbishop Cordington wanted Odran to leave his beloved position as librarian at a boys' college to take over Tom's latest position. The Archbishop promised that it would be a short-term change, but weeks became years. With his sister ailing, estranged from his nephews, Odran hated being a mere parish priest, and he “didn't know what to think.” “But there's the lie,” he says. “… I did know what to think. Only I could not bring myself to think it.” Respectful, outraged, timely, scandalous, and loaded with more than a little controversy, “A History of Loneliness” shimmers like a multifaceted diamond. Indeed, I barely know where to start – perhaps with the character of Odran, a simple, clueless go-along-to-get-along kind of guy who likes to think of himself as responsible and intuitive. He's a likeable lad but not really friendship material; he's predictable, gossipy and staid except on the occasions when he doubts his faith and his vows. That's when he surprises himself, as well as us, but author John Boyne doesn't stop there. Set in modern-day Ireland and Rome, Boyne populates this novel with close-lipped, complicated people; gives it dialogue rich with Irish brogue; and hands his readers plenty of exceptional back-plots. That adds up to a stunner of a novel that feels like a movie, one that needs to jump to the top of your Must Read list. But first – clear your calendar; once you start “A History of Loneliness,” you don't have a prayer.
"A History of Loneliness" by John Boynec.2015, Farrar, Straus and Giroux $26.00 / higher in Canada 352 pages