The delicious opening sentence of John Boyne’s The Heart’s Invisible Furies is among the best I’ve read. I repeat it here without apology for those who don’t like spoilers because it bears re- and rereading:
Long before we discovered that he had fathered two children by two different women, one in Drimoloeague and one in Clonakilty, Father James Monroe stood on the altar of the Church of Our Lady, Star of the Sea, in the parish of Goleen, West Cork, and denounced my mother as a whore.
Actually, the priest did a bit more than denounce, he kicked Catherine Goggin in the backside a couple of times as she headed out the church door. Thus does the narrator’s mother begin her journey to Dublin, where she ends up rooming with a couple of young homosexual men, a species even more despised than unwed mothers.
It’s a yeasty opening, and the narrative doesn’t let up in tension and pathos as we follow our young story teller through the narrative. We pick up his story in his boyhood, circa early 1950’s, having been adopted by a strange couple who receive him from a humpbacked nun. He is well cared for, though not particularly loved. His adoptive mother writes novels which she shies away from publishing for fear someone will read them. His adoptive father is a financier of sorts who plays fast and loose with money, both public and private and spends much of our hero’s life in prison. Both of them never fail to describe him and themselves as “adoptive.”
He lands a job as a civil servant and manages to make a decent living, all the while battling, mostly unsuccessfully against his innate homosexuality. It’s a battle worth fighting, hopeless though it might be, since the law prescribes prison as the penalty for it. It is hard to imagine the terror these folks must have felt every day during those decades, but Boyne makes the pain vivid indeed.
Along the way, we meet our narrator’s mother, watch him become somewhat acquainted with her. It’s a great Dickensian device, but handled with such skill here that one never feels manipulated.