The riveting narrative of an honorable Irish priest who finds the church collapsing around him at a pivotal moment in its history
Propelled into the priesthood by a family tragedy, Odran Yates is full of hope and ambition. When he arrives at Clonliffe Seminary in the 1970s, it is a time in Ireland when priests are highly respected, and Odran believes that he is pledging his life to "the good."
Forty years later, Odran's devotion is caught in revelations that shatter the Irish people's faith in the Catholic Church. He sees his friends stand trial, colleagues jailed, the lives of young parishioners destroyed, and grows nervous of venturing out in public for fear of disapproving stares and insults. At one point, he is even arrested when he takes the hand of a young boy and leads him out of a department store looking for the boy's mother.
But when a family event opens wounds from his past, he is forced to confront the demons that have raged within the church, and to recognize his own complicity in their propagation, within both the institution and his own family.
A novel as intimate as it is universal, A History of Loneliness is about the stories we tell ourselves to make peace with our lives. It confirms Boyne as one of the most searching storytellers of his generation.
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About the Author
John Boyne is the author of numerous works of fiction, including The Boy in the Striped Pajamas, a young adult novel that became an international bestseller and was made into an award-winning film. His books have been translated into forty-six languages, and he is the recipient of two Irish Book Awards, the Bistro Book of the Year, and numerous international awards. He lives in Dublin, Ireland.
John Boyne is the author of Crippen, The Thief of Time, Next of Kin, and the New York Times and internationally bestselling The Boy in the Striped Pajamas. Boyne won two Irish Book Awards (the People’s Choice and the Children’s) for The Boy in the Striped Pajamas, which was made into a Miramax feature film, and his novels have been translated into more than thirty languages. Ireland's Sunday Business Post named him one of the forty people under forty in Ireland "likely to be the movers and shakers who will define the country's culture, politics, style and economics in 2005 and beyond." Crippen was nominated for the Sunday Independent Hughes&Hughes Irish Novel of the Year Award. He lives with his partner in Dublin.
Read an Excerpt
A History of Loneliness
By John Boyne
Farrar, Straus and GirouxCopyright © 2015 John Boyne
All rights reserved.
I did not become ashamed of being Irish until I was well into the middle years of my life.
I might start with the evening I showed up at my sister's home for dinner and she had no recollection of issuing the invitation; I believe that was the night when she first showed signs of losing her mind.
Earlier that day, George W. Bush had been inaugurated as president of the United States for the first time, and when I arrived at Hannah's house on the Grange Road in Rathfarnham, she was glued to the television, watching highlights of the ceremony, which had taken place in Washington around lunchtime.
It was almost a year since I had last been there, and it shamed me to think that after an initial flurry of visits in the wake of Kristian's death, I had settled into my old ways of making only an occasional phone call or organizing an even more occasional lunch in Bewley's Café on Grafton Street, a place that reminded us both of our childhood, for it was here that Mam would take us for a treat when we came into town to see the Christmas window at Switzers all those years ago. And it was here that we ate lunches of sausages, beans, and chips when we were brought in to Clerys to be fitted for our First Communion clothes, exhilarating afternoons when she would let us order the biggest cream cake we could find and a Fanta orange to wash it down. We would take the 48A bus from outside Dundrum church into the city center, and Hannah and I would run upstairs to the front seats, holding on to the bar in front of us as the driver made his way through Milltown and Ranelagh, over the hump of the Charlemont Bridge, in the direction of the old Metropole Cinema behind Tara Street station, where once we had been brought to see Mutiny on the Bounty with Marlon Brando and Trevor Howard and been dragged out again when the bare-breasted women of Otaheite made their way in kayaks toward the lusty sailors, garlands of flowers around their necks the only protection for their modesty. Mam had written a letter to the Evening Press later that night, demanding that the film be banned. Is this a Catholic country, she asked, or is it not?
Bewley's has not changed very much in the thirty-five years since then, and I have always felt a great affection for it. I am a man for nostalgia; it is a curse on me sometimes. The comfort of my childhood returns to me when I see the high-backed booths that still cater to all types of Dubliners. The retired gentlemen, white haired and clean shaven, Old Spiced, shrouded in their unnecessary suits and ties as they read the business section of The Irish Times even though it no longer has any relevance to their lives. The married women enjoying the indulgence of a midmorning cup of coffee with no one but wonderful Maeve for company. The students from Trinity College, lounging around over big mugs of coffee and sausage rolls, noisy and tactile, blooming with the excitement of being young and in each others' company. A few unfortunates down on their luck, willing to trade the price of a cup of tea for an hour or two of warmth. The city has always drawn the benefit of Bewley's indiscriminate hospitality, and occasionally Hannah and I would partake of it, a middle-aged man and his widowed sister, neatly attired, careful of conversation, still with a taste for a cream cake, but no stomach for the Fanta anymore.
Hannah had phoned to invite me over a few days earlier and I had immediately said yes. Was she lonely? I wondered. Her eldest son, my nephew Aidan, was away on the sites in London and almost never came home. His phone calls, I knew, were even less regular than my own. But then he was a difficult man. One day, without warning, he had turned from being a cheerful and extroverted boy, something of a precocious entertainer, to a distant and angry presence in Hannah and Kristian's house, and that fury, which seemed to arrive without warning to poison the blood of his veins, never diminished through his teenage years, only building and swelling and destroying everything it came into contact with. Tall and well built, his Nordic ancestry providing him with clear skin and blond hair, he could charm the ladies with barely a flicker of an eyebrow, and he had a taste for them that seemed impossible to satisfy. It is true that he got one poor girl into trouble when the pair of them were not even old enough to drive, and there was war over it for a time; in the end the child was given up for adoption after a terrible row between Kristian and the girl's father that led to the police being called out. I never heard from Aidan now. He had a tendency to look at me with contempt in his eyes, and once, when he had drink on him, he stood beside me at a family gathering, placing one hand against the wall while he leaned too close, the stink of cigarettes and alcohol forcing me to turn my head away, and bulged a tongue into his cheek as he said in a perfectly friendly tone, "Listen to me, you. Do you never think you wasted your life, no? Do you never wish you could go back and live it all over again? Do everything differently? Be a normal man instead of what you are?" And I shook my head and told him that at the center of my life was a feeling of great contentment, that although I had made my choices at a young age, I stood by them still. I stood by them, I insisted, and although he might not have been able to see the sense of my decisions, they had given my days clarity and meaning, qualities that his own life sadly appeared to lack. "You're not wrong there, Odran," he said, stepping away, freeing me from the prison of his torso and arms. "But still, I couldn't be what you are. I'd rather shoot myself."
No, Aidan could never have made the choices I made, and I feel grateful for that now. The truth is that he did not share my innocence or my inability to confront. Even as a boy, he was more of a man than I would ever be. The talk now was that he was living in London with a girl a few years older than himself, a girl with two children of her own, which struck me as a curious thing, as he'd wanted no part of the child that might have been his.
The only other person in Hannah's house now was the young lad, Jonas, who had always been introverted and seemed incapable of holding a proper conversation without staring at his shoes or drumming his fingers in the air like some restless pianist. He blushed when you looked at him and preferred to be away in his room reading books, but whenever I asked him who his favorite authors were, he appeared reluctant to tell me or would name someone I had never heard of, a foreign name generally, Japanese, Italian, Portuguese, in an almost deliberate act of defiance. At his father's wake the previous March, I had tried to lighten the mood by asking is it reading that you're doing behind that closed door, Jonas, or something else? I didn't mean anything by it, of course—it was intended as a joke—but the moment the words were out of my mouth, I heard how vulgar they sounded, and the poor lad—I think there were three or four other people present to witness the scene, including his mother—went scarlet and choked on his 7-Up. I wanted to tell him how sorry I was for embarrassing him, I wanted to badly, but that would only have made matters worse, and so I left it, and I left him, and I sometimes felt that we might never recover from that moment, for surely he thought I had set out to humiliate him, a thing I would never have done nor dreamed of doing.
At this time, the time of which I speak, Jonas was sixteen years old and studying for his Intermediate Certificate, an exam that was not expected to present him with any great difficulties. He had been bright from the start, learning to speak and to read well before other children of his age. Kristian, when Kristian was alive, liked to say that with brains like his he could become a surgeon or a barrister, prime minister of Norway, or president of Ireland, but whenever I heard those words uttered, I would think, No, that's not this boy's destiny. I didn't know what his destiny might be, but no, that wasn't it.
I thought at times that Jonas was a lost boy. He never spoke of friends. He had no girlfriend, had taken no one, not even himself, to his school's Christmas dance. He didn't join clubs or play sports. He went to school, he came home from school. He went to films alone on Sunday afternoons, foreign films usually. He helped out around the house. Was he a lonely boy? I wondered. I knew something of what it was to be a lonely boy.
So there was only Hannah and Jonas in the house, a husband and father dead, a son and brother away on the sites, and from what little I knew of family life, I knew this much: a woman in her mid forties and an anxious teenage boy would have precious little to talk to each other about, and so perhaps this was a house of silence, which had led her to pick up the phone and call her older brother and say will you not come over for dinner some night, Odran? Sure we never see you at all.
I had the new car with me that night. Or the new used car, I should say, a 1992 Ford Fiesta. I'd picked it up only a week or so earlier, and I was pleased as Punch, for it was a smart little thing and fairly whizzed around the city. I parked on the road outside Hannah's house, stepped out, and opened the gate, which was hanging slightly off its hinges, and ran my finger along the chipped black paint that scarred the surface. Would Jonas not do something about that? I wondered. With Kristian gone and Aidan away, wasn't he the man of the house now, even if he was little more than a boy? The garden looked well, though. The cold months hadn't destroyed the plants, and a well-tended bed looked as if it had a hundred secrets buried beneath the soil that would spring to life and spill their consequences once the winter had given way to spring, which couldn't come soon enough for my liking, for I have always been a lover of the sun even if, spending a lifetime in Ireland, I have had little personal connection with it.
When did Hannah become a gardener? I wondered as I stood there. This is a new thing, is it?
I rang the doorbell and stepped back, glancing up toward the second-floor window where a light was on, and as I did so, a shadow made its way quickly across. Jonas must have heard the car pulling up and looked outside as I made my way up the short path to their door. I hoped he'd noticed the Fiesta. What harm if I wanted him to think his uncle had a bit of something to him? I thought for a moment that I should make more of an effort with the boy, for after all, I was his only uncle, and he might need a man in his life.
The door opened, and as Hannah peered out, she reminded me of our late grandmother, the way she stood and stared, bent over slightly, trying to understand why a person might be standing on her porch at this time of night. In her face I could see the woman she might be in another fifteen years.
"Well," she said, nodding her head, satisfied now that she recognized me. "The dead arose."
"Ah now," I replied, smiling at her and leaning forward to give her a peck on the cheek. She smelled of those lotions and creams that women of her age wear. I recognize them whenever they come close to shake my hand and ask me how my week has been and would I like to come for dinner some evening and how are their sons doing, they're no trouble to me now, are they? I don't know what those lotions are called. Lotions probably isn't even the right word. The television advertisements would say something else. There'll be a modern word for them. But look, what I don't know about women and their ways would fill enough books to stock the Ancient Library of Alexandria.
"It's good to see you, Hannah," I said as I stepped inside and removed my overcoat, hanging it up on one of the empty hooks in the hallway, next to her well-worn navy Penney's coat and a brown suede jacket that could only belong to Jonas. I glanced up the stairs, suddenly eager to see him.
"Come in, come in," said Hannah, leading the way into the living room, which was welcoming and warm. She had a fire lit in the grate, and the place itself had an air about it that made me think it would be very comfortable to sit here of an evening, watching the television programs, listening to Anne Doyle describe what Bertie was doing and whether John Bruton would make a comeback and what poor Al Gore would do now that he was on the scrap heap.
There was a framed photograph on top of the telly of little Cathal, laughing his head off as if he had his whole life in front of him, poor lad. One I'd never seen before. I stared at it; he was standing on a beach in a pair of short trousers, his hair unkempt, a smile on his face that would break your heart. I felt a moment's dizziness overwhelm me. There was only one beach Cathal had ever stood on in his life, and why would Hannah display a memory from that terrible week? Where had she even found it?
"How was the traffic, anyway?" she asked me from across the room, and I turned and stared at her for a moment before replying.
"Not a bother," I said. "I've a new car outside. It goes like the wind."
"A new car? That's very posh of you. Is that allowed?"
"I don't mean brand-new," I said, telling myself I should stop thinking of it in those terms. "I mean new to me. It's secondhand."
"And that's allowed, is it?" she asked.
"It is," I said, laughing a little, uncertain exactly what she meant. "Sure I have to get around, don't I?"
"I suppose so. What time is it, anyway?" She glanced at her watch, then back at me. "Will you sit down? You're making me nervous standing there."
"I will," I said, taking a seat, and as I did so, she clapped a hand to her mouth and stared at me as if she'd just had a great shock.
"Jesus, Mary, and Joseph," she said. "I invited you to dinner, didn't I?"
"You did," I admitted, aware now of how the smell of food in the air seemed to be more the memory of dinner than the promise of a new meal being prepared. "Had you forgotten?"
She turned away and looked confused for a moment, scrunching up her eyes, so that her face took on a most unusual aspect, before shaking her head. "Of course I didn't forget," she said. "Only, well yes, I suppose I did. I thought it was—did we not say Thursday?"
"No," I replied, certain that we had said Saturday. "Ah look, maybe I got it wrong," I added, not wanting to blame her for the mistake.
"You didn't get it wrong," she said, shaking her head and looking more upset than I thought necessary. "I don't know where I am these days, Odran. I'm all over the place. I can't begin to tell you all the mistakes I've made recently. Mrs. Byrne already gave me a warning and told me I had to buck up my ideas. But sure she's always giving out, that one. I can't do right for doing wrong as far as she's concerned. Look, I don't know what to tell you. The dinner's over. Jonas and I ate a half hour ago and I was settled down to the telly. Can I make you a sausage sandwich? Would that be all right?"
"That would be smashing," I said, and then, remembering how my stomach had been rumbling in the car, I said I'd take two if it wasn't any trouble, and she said sure how would it be any trouble, didn't she spend half her life making sausage sandwiches for those two lads upstairs anyway?
"Two lads?" I asked, wondering whether I had mistaken the shadow in the window for Jonas when it might have been his older brother. "Aidan's not home, is he?"
"Aidan?" she asked, turning around in surprise, the frying pan already in her hand. "Ah no, sure he's away in London on the sites. You know that."
"But you said two lads."
"I meant Jonas," she replied, and I left her in peace and focused my attention on the television set.
"Were you watching this earlier?" I called out. "Don't they make a terrible fuss all the same, the Yanks?"
"They'd give you a pain in the head," she said over the sound of the oil spitting in the pan as she laid three or four sausages out to fry. "But yes, I sat before it half the day. Do you think he'll be any good at all?"
"He hasn't even started yet and everyone hates him," I said, for I had watched a little of the coverage myself earlier in the afternoon and been surprised by the crowds protesting on the streets of the capital. Everyone said that he hadn't won at all, and maybe he hadn't, but it was all so tight that I found it hard to believe that a Gore inauguration would have been any more legitimate.
"Do you know who I loved?" asked Hannah in a faraway voice, as if she were a girl again.
"Who?" I asked. "Who did you love?"
"Ronald Reagan," she said. "Do you remember him in the films? They show them on a Saturday afternoon sometimes on BBC2. There was one on a few weeks ago, and there was Ronald Reagan working on a railroad and he had an accident and the next thing he knew he was waking up in bed with both his legs amputated. 'Where's the rest of me?' he shouted. 'Where's the rest of me?'"
"Ah yes," I said, even though I had never seen a Ronald Reagan picture in my life and was always surprised when people talked about how he used to be in films. They said his wife was an awful creature.
"He always looked like he was in charge," said Hannah. "And I like that in a man. Kristian had that quality."
"He did," I agreed, for it was true, he did.
"Did you know that he was in love with Mrs. Thatcher?"
"Kristian?" I asked, frowning. I couldn't imagine it.
"Not Kristian, no," she said irritably. "Ronald Reagan. Well, that's what they say anyway. That the two of them were in love with each other."
"I don't know," I said with a shrug. "I doubt it. I'd say she's a tough woman to love."
"I'll be glad to see the back of that Clinton fella," she said. "He was a dirty so-and-so, wasn't he?"
I nodded, noncommittally. I was sick of Bill Clinton myself. I liked his politics well enough, but he had become so hard to trust, so concerned with saving his own skin that he had lost me long ago. All those wagging fingers and stone-faced denials. And not a word of truth in any of it.
"Him and his oral sex," continued Hannah, and I turned to stare at her in surprise. I'd never heard such words come out of her mouth and wasn't entirely sure that I'd heard her correctly now either, but I wasn't going to ask any questions. She was turning the sausages over in the pan and humming to herself. "Odran, are you a ketchup man or do you prefer the brown sauce?" she called out.
Excerpted from A History of Loneliness by John Boyne. Copyright © 2015 John Boyne. Excerpted by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
Chapter 1: 2001,
Chapter 2: 2006,
Chapter 3: 1964,
Chapter 4: 1980,
Chapter 5: 1972,
Chapter 6: 2010,
Chapter 7: 1973,
Chapter 8: 2011,
Chapter 9: 1978,
Chapter 10: 1990,
Chapter 11: 2007,
Chapter 12: 1994,
Chapter 13: 1978,
Chapter 14: 2008,
Chapter 15: 2012,
Chapter 16: 2013,
Also by John Boyne,
A Note About the Author,
Reading Group Guide
Acclaimed for his stirring storytelling and keen perceptions of human nature, the novelist John Boyne now explores the turbulent cultural shifts that have marked Irish Catholicism in recent decades. Told from the point of view of Odran Yates, an ambitious young man who enters the seminary in the 1970s, A History of Loneliness traces the journey of the Yates family and the church itself through pivotal events. Haunted by the deaths of his father and younger brother, Odran searches for fulfillment in a world of conflicting demands. While his mother turns to religious zealotry, his sister marries outside their culture. Rather than providing him with stability, Odran's chosen path ultimately leads him to the church scandals that have shattered the trust of even the most faithful. While he watches his friends and colleagues face accusations, Odran himself becomes scorned and scrutinized by a disapproving public.
Raising provocative questions about the nature of guilt and the stories we tell ourselves to make peace with ourselves, A History of Loneliness confirms Boyne as one of the most compelling literary voices of his generation. We hope that the following guide will enrich your exploration of this powerful novel.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Great insight into 50 years of the Irish Roman Catholic Church.
A powerful book. It made me think about how I would have handled what happened. Would I have looked away or would I have spoken up? I liked how the story was woven between years. I figured out what happened early on to Ordan as well as Aidan. I was surprised that Ordan did not make the connection. Ordan has much that he had to live with as he aged. I wonder what happened to him. Well done.