A History of Loneliness by John Boyne is set in Ireland during the final three decades of the last century. The narrator is Odran Yates who is a Roman Catholic priest. The story is not told chronologically but in a series of flashbacks as Odran relates his journey as a priest and his growing awareness of the terrible secret that the church has been hiding during this time.
This is a grim book. It is about child abuse and the role of the Roman Catholic church in hiding its prevalence among the priesthood. The author is angry about this and it shows over and over again in this book as he demonstrates how the cover-up stretches to the highest level of the hierarchy. We, however, see the events through Odran’s eyes and as he continues obliviously to live his own life and exercise his own faith we, as the reader, know what lies behind events that he sees as commonplace and harmless. This makes it often uncomfortable to read but we cling to Odran’s innocence and the author helps us believe that perhaps those who said that they knew nothing were telling the truth until he rips even that comfort from us with a devastating last couple of chapters.
This is not an easy book, although it is written in a deceptively simple style but I think it comes as close as anything I have read to explain how the church was embedded in Irish culture and the power that it had over the thinking of ordinary people. It also shows clearly how the Roman Catholic church has rightly lost the trust of ordinary people and how that affects everyone involved – no one comes out of this book unscathed, even the reader.
The author has captured the cadence of Irish speech well and the book’s structure tells the story effectively. This is an accomplished book and a powerful piece of writing which is specifically about a series of events which happened in Ireland at a specific time. I think it is worth reading but I would find it difficult to say that I enjoyed it.