There was a time in history that if you came upon a lost child you could take them to a priest. Presumably, that priest would know the child’s parents, even the community better than a police officer would. This was true of Ireland until the early 2000’s when there was a scandal of trials involving numerous priests who were alleged to have abused many children over the years. In John Boyne’s new novel, A History of Loneliness, we explore this subject, but more importantly how it affects those priests who have nothing to do with the abuse and are treated equally; as though they are potential abusers too.
A History of Loneliness starts out with Father Yates, Odran by first name. The year is 2001, he’s going to visit his sister and nephew in Dublin. At this time Odran has been serving the Terenure College for most of his ordained life, helping boys grow into men and watching the schools rugby team get better and better every year. However it’s at this junction in his life when he is asked to step down from Terenure and take over the parish of his old friend and colleague Tom Cardle. It turns out that Tom, after have been moved from parish to parish over his career, is finally being pulled one last time, but without prospects of relocation this time. Odran is hesitant to agree, but the Cardinal assigning him to Cardle’s parish doesn’t really leave it up for debate. This is the point to which the novel launches us off, taking us from the time Odran enters the seminary, goes to Rome to finish his ordination, then propels us through all the important years of Odran’s life. However as time goes on, we see the public eye of Catholicism go from completely trusting of priests to an incredibly contemptuous view of the leaders everyone used to trust so much.
A History of Loneliness is a very heavy and controversial novel. It’s topic is one that the author likely chose with care and was very passionate to write about. That said it might be a tough one for Catholics or religious persons to digest. The overall flow of the novel is fantastic. We’re taken through the years of Odran’s life; past to present to future then back again. The story isn’t overly complicated, but it does have a way of keeping a pit in your stomach at moments. For readers that don’t catch onto the subtle hints that Boyne lays out for you, the subject is the investigation into child abuse by priests in Ireland that culminated around the early 2000’s. Because of how the story is laid out, the reader gets to move with Odran when he enters seminary and is wholly respected, seen as a pillar of the community, only to lose that stature at the time of the trials.
Although the end result of the story isn’t the happiest one, A History of Loneliness provides some great insight to the Irish order of Catholicism, the process of ordination for priests and being Irish. The subject matter is quite touchy and probably will remain so after this novel is published, but that doesn’t stop Boyne from telling an absolutely fantastic story. Stories aren’t always about the end result, but the journey in which they are brought forth.
Rating: 8 out of 10 – The journey of A History of Loneliness is magically wonderful. Boyne mixes flavors of family, faith and loyalty only to have them all dashed by a bit of doubt. A shining piece of historical fiction, this novel will be one of the most talked about books of 2015.